The Top of the Egg

This is my review of Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

I believe there are quite a few parallels with Somerset Maugham’s own early life in this forensic study of a boy growing to become a man at the dawn of the last century: his hero Philip was orphaned young, brought up by a self-centred clergyman and his downtrodden sister, neither with much idea about children, bullied at school for his club foot, and grew up to be acutely observant, often using sarcasm to mask his hypersensitivity.

We see Philip moving from earnest piety to the conscious rejection of religion, with the startling sense of freedom this brings, trying out a variety of occupations, experimenting with romantic escapades but, to the reader’s frustration, continually falling under the influence of a woman who seems likely to destroy his future. Apart from providing a profound study of Philip’s thoughts and changing emotions, this is interesting for the details of daily life in late Victorian/Edwardian England: what things cost, how people trained for various qualifications, what they wore or ate and so on.

This reminds me of Michel Leon’s more recent “The Foundling Boy” (Le Jeune Homme Vert) published recently, but strikes a more serious and realistic note. Maugham should not be condemned for his narrator’s snobbish tone towards, say Cockney clerks or young women unaware of their lack of class as they fret over their respectability, since he must himself have been an inevitable product of the stuffy conventions in which he was raised. Yet, despite its often slow pace and dated attitudes, this classic stands the test of time and still deserves to be read for the wry humour, fluency and insight of the author’s warped genius.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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