Sometimes it can be hard going but I like to read biographies of great writers. You can learn a lot from them. This year I’ve been reading The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings. When I can prise it away from my wife, that is. She’s been hogging it quite a bit and only feeding me tantalising snippets in the car on the way to the supermarket.
For instance, last weekend she told me that Ian Fleming had a very creative sex life.
Ian Fleming, who was delighted by Maugham’s response to his first book, Casino Royale, was too busy with his job at the Sunday Times to stay with Maugham often but when he did he certainly left an impression.
Soon after their wedding the Flemings came to stay at the Mauresque [Maugham’s villa in the South of France] and Maugham was touched to see how deeply the couple were in love. He was puzzled, however, by the large number of towels they used, upwards of nine a day left in a damp pile on the bathroom floor. It later transpired that Fleming during sessions of highly inventive sex liked to whip his wife with a wet towel, then use another to wrap her in and soothe the smart.
Selina Hastings doesn’t tell us how Maugham found out how the towels were used. Presumably Ann Fleming, who was a regular visitor without her husband, succumbed to Maugham’s infamous charm and revealed all. I like to think so, anyway.
I came across a biography of Ian Fleming the other day but I resisted it. I have decided to read his novels instead. I am sure they are as creative as his sex life. After all, it took a lot to impress Maugham, whose own sexual imagination had to be curbed by the Commissioner of Scotland Yard, no less.
Beverley Nichols, who might be assumed to know what he was talking about, said of Maugham, ‘He was the most sexually voracious man I’ve ever known’; and Hugh Walpole, himself no laggard on the homosexual scene, told Virginia Woolf that in his view Maugham was lucky not to have been ‘jugged [imprisoned]. You don’t know the kind of life that Willie has led. I do.’ As Maugham was recognised wherever he went, his behaviour inevitably became the subject of gossip, and not only within the queer world. It was about this time that some disquieting information on the matter came to the attention of none other than the Commissioner of the Metropoiltan Police at Scotland Yard; alarmed by its content the Commissioner felt obliged to convey a message to F.H. Maugham, discreetly indicating that he should issue a warning to his younger brother.
I didn’t come across many sexual revelations in Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Emily Dickinson, Lives like Loaded Guns. I suppose that’s because all the sexual energy is in the poems.
‘Abyss has no biographer —‘, Emily Dickinson said.
A still — Volcano — Life —
That flickered in the night —
When it was dark enough to do
Without erasing sight —
A quiet — Earthquake Style —
Too subtle to suspect
By natures this side Naples —
The North cannot detect
The Solemn — Torrid — Symbol —
The lips that never lie —
Whose hissing Corals part — and shut —
And Cities — ooze away —