W. Somerset Maugham-Playwright, Novelist and Spy
|W. Somerset Maugham
Every August, the local hospital conducts a street fair of enormous proportions. It has been held for decades and is greatly anticipated by locals and visitors alike. The book tent, which is of course my favorite, holds thousands of books. I have found countless treasures in the past and am looking forward to this year’s fair.
One of last year’s finds was W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, or the British Agent. A collection of loosely related stories, it follows the career of writer-turned-spy Ashenden who decides his new career is not nearly as exciting as he expected. At one point he complains that his life “is orderly and monotonous as a city clerks.” Despite being surrounded by murder, intrigue, and betrayal, his job is to watch and report back to the “powers that be.”
Set during WWI and the subsequent Russian Revolution, Ashenden is partly based on Maugham’s own experiences. By 1914, he had published ten plays and ten novels. His eleventh book, Of Human Bondage, was released in 1915 while he was serving in France in the British Red Cross’s Ambulance Corp.
During his return to England to promote the book, he was recruited by Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. His first assignment was in Geneva where he set himself up as a French playwright and acted as liaison between field agents and headquarters in London. The reports were coded into his manuscripts and escaped notice of the Swiss. In 1917, Maugham was sent to Russia to gather intelligence on the German spy network.
Too old to enlist during WWII, Maugham spent the war in the United States, where he was asked by the British government to make speeches to encourage the US to send aid to the UK.
Most consider him to be the first author of spy stories who was actually a spy. He considered his exploits useful for his writing career, but not much else. In Ashenden’s forward Maugham writes, “The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless.”
I wonder what today’s spies would think about his words.