If you were, hypothetically, to have your train delayed by over four hours one evening, taking your total journey home time from a little over two hours (which now seems almost reasonable by comparison) to six and a half hours, you’d definitely need a book or two with you to keep you sane. Ideally, you want something entertaining, lighthearted and vaguely escapist to distract you from the fact that you’re stuck on a train platform next to five stationary trains and many, many angry commuters. Possibly you want something easy so you aren’t too confused when you have to stop reading every five minutes to listen to announcements about how sorry SouthWest Trains are (after a delay of more than an hour they go from being ‘sorry’ to ‘very sorry’). What you don’t want is to be reading a depressing story about the harsh reality of life for women in London’s East End during the late Victorian era. Still, it’s difficult to plan ahead for train delays and so when I was stuck in this complete and utter chaos back in June I had to make do with what I had and read Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham.
In Liza of Lambeth, Maugham draws on his own experiences as a trainee doctor who would frequently be called to attend on people in the poorer areas of London. Liza is an eighteen year old factory worker who enjoys dancing, drinking, wearing new clothes and generally living life to the full. She lives with her aging mother, walks out with Tom and spends time with her friend Sally. All this changes when a new family move in to the street and the father, the much older Jim Blakestone, starts paying attention to Liza. Even though Jim is married, Liza finds herself unable to resist him and so begins her downfall.
Like Up at the Villa which I read earlier last year, this book is not at all the sort of book that it seems to be from the first chapter, which is so full of stereotypical cockney merriment and hijinks that I half expected Dick van Dyke to pop up and start performing a song and dance routine. However, it does not take long for Maugham to reveal the hard reality of the daily lives of the inhabitants of Vere Street, in which all men beat their wives, women fight each other, and death is an ever-present possibility. None of the characters ever seem particularly unhappy with their lot in life, facing their relative poverty with equanimity and good cheer, prosaically discussing the practicalities of having insured a person as they lie dying or excusing their husbands’ violence as just being down to drink. Of course, this makes it all the more heart-breaking and shocking to read as a modern reader or even a Victorian reader of a higher class with different expectations of what life should be like.
There were two things that I found irritating in this book (although do remember that I was predisposed to be irritated anyway). The first is Maugham’s attempt to reproduce a cockney accent in his writing. Although it is usually possible to work out what characters were saying, unlike in some books where attempts at written accents make a character’s speech virtually unintelligible (Lorna Doone, I’m looking at you), it is rather grating. I know Maugham wants to stop readers from imagining the inhabitants of Vere Street speaking in perfect RP, but this is already implied through vocabulary choice and the accent reproduction was a step too far for me. The other thing was Liza and Jim’s relationship, which Maugham makes no attempt to explain. The attraction for older, married Jim is obvious, but why does Liza fall in love with him? She knows he is married with a daughter only a few years younger than her, she knows he beats his wife, she knows he gets drunk and yet still she goes with him. When Liza is first introduced, she is such a feisty and opinionated character that I expected her to slap Jim and screech at him when she first feels him surreptitiously stroking her leg as he sits beside her in the cart, but she keeps quiet at the time and later lets him follow her home and kiss her. Perhaps her downfall is supposed to seem all the more tragic because her love is inexplicable and illogical, but I personally found it too unbelievable.
I would have probably enjoyed this book more had I not read the introduction first, not because Maugham gives away anything of the story but because the writing in it out-classes that of the actual story completely. The introduction is far more polished, professional and engaging and I found it more interesting than the story itself. Liza of Lambeth was Maugham’s first novel, written when he was only twenty-three, and the introduction in the Vintage edition of the book was written for a retrospective collection of his works when he was a much older man with a much better developed writing style, so the discrepancy is entirely understandable. Nevertheless, the comparison that it invites is not favourable and so this is another introduction which would be better moved to the end of the book, I think.
Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham. Published by Vintage, 2000, pp. 139. Originally published in 1897.