Somerset Maugham was born in 1874, four years before A.E.Coppard. But their lives, and stories diverge more widely.

Maugham was educated at Canterbury and Heidelberg, and considered training as a doctor. By the age of twenty three he had published his first novel, by 1919 he was an established novelist and playwright.

In 1921 a curious convergence occurs though, for that was the year in which both Coppard and Maugham published their first collection of short stories: Adam and Eve Pinch Me, and  Little Stories of the South Sea Islands respectively.

Education, travel and class separate these two English writers more widely than do their years, and it shows in the sort of stories that Maugham went on to produce, and in the points of view from which they are narrated.

Typical of his South Sea story narrators is the worldly wise and slightly cynical traveller, who has seen much and recounts stories of planters and traders, steamer skippers and their crews, and itinerant writers, exiles and ne’er do wells who move from port to port. In bars and club houses they drink to forget, and to remember, mixing uneasily with each other, and with the native peoples they encounter.

There is poverty here, but not the same sort of poverty as afflicts Coppard’s Old Venerable or his Poor Man. Maugham’s protagonists have the poverty of those who have left comfortable worlds behind them in Europe. They live as self-imposed exiles rather than in circumstances that have been forced upon them. The backgrounds to their lives, and to those of their narrators, have little in common with those of Coppard’s characters.  England is a memory, or some other European country is. They are a community of isolates, in their clubs, on far flung estates, or aboard the wandering ships of the archipelagos.

Stories like Mabel, where a would be wife chases her man from Malaya to China, begin with the narrator ‘at Pagan in Burma, and from there I took the steamer to Mandalay.’ He hears the story at a ‘riverside village’ and passes it on to us. Nothing is rooted in these stories. Neither events nor narrators, nor, by implication we ourselves. We are just another passing traveller to whom another passing story is told.

The Book-Bag’ is another in which a narrator arrives somewhere, is befriended by a planter, and is told a story as strange as any in the eponymous holdall. Like many others, this story is inconclusive, indecisive, a story about strangers, passed onto strangers, concerning strangers. Whereas Coppard is rooted in places, Maugham is blown about the seas. His characters belong nowhere, and that is where their stories are traded.

Who these characters were, and in what sense they were truly British is a subject for discussion, but they did exist, and Maugham had met them, and in the clubs and bars, and plantation houses in which the stories are set, he listened and noted. When his South Sea Tales began to appear it seemed, to the people whose stories they were, often recognisable as individuals, an act of betrayal, to the extent that Maugham felt unable to visit the area again.

Yet there is little in them, save for the details of location, and the specifics of events that could not be found in the stories of any peoples at any time and in any place. Lust, greed, fear, disappointment and the striving to hold or to gain power over their own lives and those on whom they depend are present in all humanity’s stories. Coppard’s characters might also recognise themselves, and not be so happy to do so, yet Coppard’s narrators seem to be closer to those they describe than do Maugham’s. But what of either of them’s readers?

Though that may be true, it remains that the element which made Maugham’s stories so attractive when they were first published, the whiff of the far flung unknown location, is what makes them worth reading now. What has changed is that whereas a hundred years ago, those locations were exotic by virtue of their distance in space, they are now made so by their distance in time.

English of the English

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