Episode 39: The Taipan by W Somerset Maugham

William Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham was born in 1873 in Paris and died in Nice in 1965, was despite his brith and death places, English.

He was a fantastically successful writer, being the highest paid author of the 1930s. His parents died when Maugham was only 10 and he was brought up by his uncle, a clergyman, and sent to King’s School, Canterbury. Many men in his family were lawyers, including his elder brother who was a viscount, but Maugham didn’t want that. 

He hated his school in Canterbury and finally his uncle let him to go to study German literature at the University at Heidelberg, after which he went to St Thomas’s hospital in London where he trained as a doctor, and qualified as one in 1897. He specialised in obstetrics and used his work experience to inspire his first novel, Liza of Lambeth. After that he worked as a novelist and playwright and travelled through Spain and Italy.

Maugham, like many of the writers we read out, was gay. He was married to a woman but this was unhappy and after it broke down he lived in France with his male partner. His writing made him famous by the outbreak of the First World War.

During the First World War he worked for the Red Cross and the Ambulance Corps before being recruited by MI6. He had missions in Switzerland and Russia for British Intelligence but when the war was finished he went back to his globe-trotting lifestyle until 1928 when he bought a villa in the South of France and stayed there until his death. 

The Taipan

A Tai-Pan is a Cantonese word for a leader of a Western Trading Company that operated in China in the 19th Century. The Taipan who is the main character of the story is not a very sympathetic chap and I didn’t feel myself warming to him much.

The story is set in the days of the British Empire among a colony of ex-pats who spend their time drinking, playing bridge, having affairs and racing horses. As well as being contemptuous of the people they are among.

The Taipan is self-satisfied, sociopathic, adulterous, alcoholic, snobbish and racist and ultimately riddled with anxiety. In a short story, we see the fall of a man from the pinnacle of arrogance to become a trembling wreck. It is a nice moral tale of the mighty being humbled by their own faults. 

He gets what he deserves.

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