Mrs Craddock was one of the early novels written by Maugham at the beginning of the 20th Century. The theme was certainly progressive given the conservative Victorian social milieu that was prevalent. Feminism and women’s liberation movement were unknown and the massive ‘middle-class’ revolution had not caught on.
Aristocracy still prevailed in a manner wherein the privileged led indolent and unproductive lives like a Lily of the field – the prerogative of the idle rich who did not toil and labour.
And yet in Bertha Ley, the heroine and central character of the novel, Maugham created one of his more sympathetic portrayals of his women characters. The reader’s sympathies are firmly with her when as a young and beautiful girl from the Aristocratic class she decides to defy tradition and social mores by electing to fall in love with Edward Craddock, a poor ‘Gentleman-farmer’ who resides on her crumbling estate. This is truly stuff that our candy floss Bollywood romantic movies would have loved and the closing credits would have mentioned that they lived ‘happily ever after’.
But the marriage proposal is hardly met with any resistance – Bertha’s ‘worldly-wise’ aunt, Mrs Ley, can see that they are an ill-matched pair but she holds her own counsel as she wisely believes in not interfering in other people’s lives. Her character is an interesting sidelight to the story and inspires a bigger narrative in Maugham’s subsequent novel, ‘The Merry Go Round’. Its well worth a moment to spell out her policy – true to being a spinster she holds a rather poor view of people’s preoccupation with passion and love.
She is all for some plain old horse sense and not easy to suffer fools gladly. She is a shrewd judge of people and their character but it is her credo not to poke her nose into other people’s affairs. She pities and privately sympathizes with the trials and tribulations people go through in their quest for ideal love and relationship. But she is very ‘non-interventionist’ by nature and observes human lives as one might observe the antics of animals in a zoo.
So the marriage begins on an idyllic note – a young wife whose love and devotion for her husband knows no bounds. Edward on the other hand is a well etched ‘salt-of the earth’ character who is large-hearted and good-natured but rather preoccupied with his farm. Maugham sets of the scene for the ‘love’ to vaporize post the honeymoon and carefully plots the drift in the relationship. As all Indian oldies know a child would have done the trick but it is not to be as Bertha delivers a ‘still-born’ baby and it breaks her heart.
Totally frustrated she moves away from the rural scene to spend some time in London Here she is shown to fall ‘head-over-heels’ for a younger cousin who is on his way to the colonies. The affair alienates the reader’s sympathies for Bertha. Edward’s character is shown to make progress in farming initiative and he now resembles a ‘Squire’ in the making.
The novel now draws to a quick close – there are a lot of potentialities as Maugham’s ironical treatment of the tale charms you. The end comes up a bit pale as Edward conveniently dies an accidental death while playing Polo and Bertha feels liberated from the cloistered ties of her marriage.