‘Up at the Villa’ by W. Somerset Maugham

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

Sometimes my reasons for choosing books are incredibly shallow; I bought the Vintage Somerset Maugham collection because of the rather attractive covers (not to mention they were incredibly good value from The Book People, of course), and I chose to read Up at the Villa first because, at a mere 120 pages, it is by far the shortest one of the bunch and I wanted to break myself in gently to this new-to-me author.  Both the purchase and the selection were a shot in the dark, made without any prior knowledge other than that Maugham was an author I wanted to try out, and this is one of those fortuitous occasions on which my gamble has paid off remarkably well, as Up at the Villa is a little gem of a novella and reading it has made me excited to carry on with more Maugham (that sounds quite odd if said aloud).

The story opens rather mundanely, with Mary Panton, a young, English widow spending time in a villa in Tuscany, awaiting a proposal from Sir Edgar Swift, soon to be Governor of Bengal.  Although she doesn’t love him, she does not refuse his offer of marriage, but instead asks for the three days that he is away in which to consider her answer.  During that time, however, a chance encounter in a restaurant turns her world upside down, and she must choose what to do.

The thing I love about coming to a new author without any expectations is that I never know where exactly the book will go.  In this case, when Up the Villa began in a serene, idyllic, rather sweet way I had no idea whether it was going to remain like that and be a pleasant, gentle novella or whether everything was going to be turned on its head (I deliberately refrained from reading the blurb on the back cover and I’m trying to give away as little as possible here too).  Maugham creates wonderfully atmospheric scenery which is described in emotional rather than physical terms, leaving no doubt that all is well in Mary’s world as she heads out for dinner:

To dine there on a June evening when it was still day,and after dinner to sit there till the softness of the night gradually enveloped her, was a delight of which Mary felt she could never tire.  It gave her a delicious feeling of peace, but not of an empty peace in which there was something lethargic, of an active, thrilling peace rather in which her brain was all alert and her senses quick to respond.  Perhaps it was something in that light Tuscan air that affected you so that even physical sensation had in it something spiritual.  It gave you just the same emotion as listening to the music of Mozart, so melodious and so gay, with its undercurrent of melancholy, which filled you with so great contentment that you felt as though the flesh no longer had any hold on you.  For a few blissful minutes you were purged of all grossness and the confusion of life was dissolved in perfect loveliness.  (p. 14)

Can’t you just image yourself there having dinner in the warm, Italian evening sun?  This quality of description is maintained throughout the novella and was one of the aspects that I loved.

This could all sound rather earnest, but Maugham has a light touch which laces the book with wry humour, often at unexpected moments.  I instantly warmed to Mary, for instance, when she decides:

If he were really going to ask her to marry him, well, it would make it easier for both of them, out in the open air, over a cup of tea, while she was nibbling a scone.  The setting was seemly and not unduly romantic. (p. 5)

Mary is a young woman who has been through a lot already and Maugham makes her an excellently well drawn, well rounded character.  The reader spends a lot of the book seeing events from her perspective and hearing her thoughts and they never feel inauthentic.  Her conversations with Rowley, and English gentleman of dubious morals, reveal her to be astute, self aware and remarkably candid about sex.  Perhaps because of her life experience she is under few illusions about herself and what life has to offer her, yet she remains remarkably naive about other things, which is what leads to the events of the story, and this makes her a very interesting character.

All of the characters are surprisingly vivid for such a short novella.  Maugham has a way of pinning characters down with just a few words and phrases so that the reader can instantly visualise and understand them, as in the case of the Princess:

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 the 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.  (p. 16)

The pacing of the story is excellent, starting off at the slow, languid speed that you might expect from a novel about the English upper classes in Italy and gradually speeding up until it feels almost out of control.  Nonetheless, there are several issues which are left too unresolved for my liking and I wish that there had been just one more chapter addressing these issues and tying up loose ends.  That would have made the book nearly perfect.  I also found the light, breezy tone of the conclusion rather disturbing, but then I think that’s exactly how I was supposed to feel.

I’ve really enjoyed my first foray into the writing of W. Somerset Maugham through this odd little book.  If the rest of the novels I have waiting for me in my collection from The Book People prove half as interesting I can see myself adding even more of his works to my wishlist before the year is out.

Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham.  Published by Vintage, 2004, pp. 120.  Originally published in 1941.

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