Well either I have been very lucky in the novellas that I have chosen for ‘Taking Little Novel(la) Risks’ so far or this way of testing out authors that I have meant to read might be favourable to any author. Either way ‘Up at the Villa’ by W. Somerset Maugham has been a resounding hit with me. I have always thought that I might rather like W. Somerset Maugham. I think probably because of the era that he wrote in covers two of my favourite periods in history, the end of the 1800’s and the 1930’s and 40’s. I loved the movie adaptation of ‘The Painted Veil’ when I saw that a few years ago and had thought then ‘oh, I must read some of his books’, however I proceeded not to do that very thing. We have all been there I am sure.
When I started ‘Up at the Villa’ I knew it was more than likely that I was going to like this book a lot. It had a slightly familiar feel, its protagonist Mary Panton is a widow (though you think she could easily have been a divorcee if fate hadn’t intervened ‘setting us both free’) who has fled to the hills above Florence to escape the world back home and think about her failed her disastrous marriage. She has however made friends, in the form of ‘The Princess’, and also found herself with more than one suitor already happy to share her future. There is Edgar, one of her fathers friends, who wants to look after her and clearly adores her and there is also Rowley Flint, a rogue if ever there was one, who Mary believes (possibly quite rightly) simply wants to have her.
I was prepared therefore to simply comfortably find myself embroiled in a love triangle that would take place over several lavish dinners, fuelled with wit and banter as the men tried their hardest to woe Mary and would have been quite happy if that had been the case. But it wasn’t. After one dinner and a brilliant sparing match between Mary and Rowley, Mary does something very rash on the way home, something which leads her into a situation that would shock and scandal the society that she is in, and the book takes a much darker turn. I didn’t see this coming (and of course I am not going to tell you what it is, but you wouldn’t guess it from the demure cover – see one below which is older and brilliant) and was literally thrilled by it.
If that wasn’t a revelation of its own then Somerset Maugham’s writing was. I was expecting something that would be much harder work, and yet I flew through this book if about an hour and a half – admittedly it is very short. The characters were marvellous if a touch stereotyped Rowley is the typical incorrigible bachelor who ladies shouldn’t love but do, The Princess was a typical rather wry matriarchal character who loves everybody else’s business and wants to tell everyone how to go about it too. It is Mary’s character that I found fascinating, a woman with fairly good means who doesn’t seem to know what to do with her life and so does something rash, and something she will regret, a woman who at thirty seems to be discovering a different side to herself even when she has had quite a trying time. I liked her a lot. I also liked how Maugham used her to describe the situation women might find themselves in at that time, and just what they shouldn’t go about doing whilst also showing that there are more to the stereotypical male than Mary, and women at the time, might think.
“The Princess gave him another of those quiet smiling looks of hers in which there was the indulgence of an old rip who has neither forgotten nor repented of her naughty past and at the same time a shrewdness of a woman who knows the world like the palm of her hand and come to the conclusion that no one is any better than he should be.
‘You’re an awful scamp, Rowley,and you’re not even good-looking enough to excuse it, but we like you’, she said.”
‘Up at the Villa’ is a perfect book when you want something slightly familiar and yet something that completely throws you. There is a comfort in Maugham’s writing that is rather like finding a wonderful black and white film on the telly on a rainy afternoon. That probably sounds ridiculous, or a big cliché, but it sums up my experience of this book the best way I can. You can’t help but loose yourself in it and find you are left wanting to turn to the next one as soon as you can.
The only question is which Somerset Maugham, as I now have 19 more to treat myself to, I should go for next? I don’t know if I am quite ready for ‘Of Human Bondage’ and I can still remember ‘The Painted Veil’ so maybe I should turn to ‘The Magician’ which I have on Mount TBR anyway? Maybe I should go for another shorter one… oh I don’t know – can you help?