‘Cakes and Ale’ is probably the most cheerful of Maugham’s works, considering that it comprises chiefly of the narrator’s recollections of a carefree summer vacation due to a strange friendship with a middle-aged writer, Driffield, and his sensuous, friendly wife, Rosie.
Lord George, the local coal merchant, adds to the merriment and is to play a key role later in the novel. The young narrator met the Driffields when he came back home from his boarding school for the holidays. The kindly couple take much interest in the shy lad who tries to be ‘standoffish’ to them initially and they become friends by teaching him to ride a bicycle.
The school vacation turns out to be a memorable one as he spends a lot of time with the couple doing routine things like going to the beach, drawing pictures, having ‘tea’ with them and reading some books. Maugham, in a casual way, describes the delightful events of his holidays and the enjoyment he derived from his friendship with the Driffields. No grim descriptions of a struggling shy boy here, that abound in his other autobiographical masterpiece, ‘Of Human Bondage’.
Maugham sets out to be kind on this occasion and he succeeds in his endeavor. Driffield appears to him to an average writer and he is not very impressed by him or his works. Rosie is, in contrast, the most sympathetic portrayal done by Maugham of the female character. She is a beautiful but simple girl, who has worked as a bar-maid in the past and is set on having a ‘good time’ in life. Maugham conveys a true portrait of her and she is the best character he draws in the book.
The writer moves back to school and is looking forward to spending the next holidays with the Driffields. He is to be disappointed when he learns the shocking news that the Driffields had bolted one night leaving behind a trail of unpaid bills. He notes with some sympathy that they left money on the table to cover the salary of the parlour maid who is the one to discover their disappearance. The writer’s uncle, who is also the Vicar, makes a rather caustic assessment of their character. He reminds,with much satisfaction, the writer of having disproved of his relations with the couple.
The narrator narrates the incidents when Alroy Kear, a self-serving writer rather too eager to make a name for himself, seeks his help while writing the biography of the late Driffield. Nearing senescence Driffield had become the ‘Grand Old Man of Letters’ on the strength of the his numerous books and his longevity. By then Rosie, the disreputable wife, had left him to join Lord George and he was married to the ‘prim-n-proper’ nurse, Amy. Maugham mocks the English tradition of venerating ageing writers with little regard to the critical value of their works merely because they have outlived their contemporaries. He also amuses himself in his portrayal of the assiduous Kear as the writer on the make. He pays him a cold compliment of being relentless and industrious in his effort to climb the literary grapevine.
It is widely known that Rosie ran away with a boyfriend and abandoned Edward. It is proposed to subtly indicate that she was a bad influence on Edward and he prospered well after she left him. Kear plans to play along with the active support of Amy to draw a sympathetic portrait of the late Edward Driffield. He seeks Maugham support in his endeavor and also wants to persuade him to turn a blind eye to the late writer’s relatively unsavory and penurious past.
Maugham is rather cold to the plan for the obvious reason that it is a very unreal representation of the Driffields that he knew in his teens and later on as a young man in London. He flits effortlessly between the past and the present before bringing up the finale wherein he makes the facts clear to Kear but also indicates that he may choose to keep quiet about it.
Maugham has his own reasons for not opening up all his reminiscences and he chooses to keep quiet about his own experiences that were rather different. And finally he lets on to the reader that Rosie is still alive and doing well in America. Rosie had narrated to him the tragic episode of the death of their young child and Maugham perceptively recollects its depiction in one of Driffield’s novels. Incidentally this book was regarded to be his best work as well. Rosie recalls that he did not want to talk about it and upset about the loss. So she felt it a bit funny that he finally wrote about it and with such insight. Through this episode Maugham conveys that Rosie had been Edward’s muse and inspiration for most of his work which anyways was a true and real depiction of the ‘working classes’ and he added nothing more to it once he achieved success and became the celebrated writer.
The end seems to be abrupt given Maugham’s penchant for every tale to have a proper beginning, middle and the end. We never get to learn on what finally happened to the famous biography – was it published and if yes, how was it received. One presumes that the writer has tried to convey that the focus of the book was always on Rosie and on lampooning the absurd practice of lionizing ageing writers well past their prime. That Maugham succeeds well must have been rather ironical for him to recollect when he eventually became the ‘Grand Old Man of Letters’ in England as well as across the continent, in America.
But it was never unmerited in the eyes of the millions of the readers who had been regaled by his fine art of telling a tale; that his writings lacked a similar warm reception from his critics and contemporaries may have galled him a bit but he bore it with the sardonic humor that was his trademark and prided himself to have been a professional writer.