‘Up at the Villa’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 120 pages;  2004.

First published in 1941, Up at the Villa is a quick-to-read novella by W. Somerset Maugham.

It tells the tale of Mary Panton, a beautiful young Englishwoman, who is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life following the untimely death of her beloved husband, who was a philanderer, gambler and drunkard.

Given the loan of an attractive villa in the hills above Florence, she spends her days sitting on the terrace admiring the view and her evenings in the company of a select group of aristocratic friends, including the wayward rotter and playboy Rowley Flint.

When an old family friend, Sir Edgar Swift, who has been in love with her since she was a girl, asks for her hand in marriage, she requests a few days to think about it. While she knows that she does not love Sir Edgar — he’s 24 years older than her and was a contemporary of her late father’s — she trusts him and believes his new position as the Viceroy of Bengal will elevate her social standing and provide her with a degree of financial security.

But during those three days, Mary makes a fateful decision, seemingly on a whim, that plunges her into enormous danger.

A morality tale 

I’ve read enough Maugham now to realise he’s obsessed with marriages (particularly unhappy ones), adultery, sexual restraint and class. And this book, a thinly disguised morality tale, is no different.

Mary’s kindness, compassion and desire embroils her in a scandal from which there appears to be no escape. The morally dubious way in which she then behaves when things go wrong does not make the reader warm to her.

Similarly, Rowley, who is painted as a bad character right from the start, behaves with great chivalry, but you soon come to realise his honourable actions are compromised by rather dark motivations. It’s hard to know who to cheer on and who to condemn.

In fact Up at the Villa is the sort of book that asks more questions than it answers. Its characters, all deeply flawed but terribly human, are well drawn even if some of their dialogue, especially the romantic bits, are a little unconvincing.

Despite the lightness of touch of Maugham’s sometimes silky prose, this is a story dealing with some very big themes — about beauty, the human heart and how the decisions we make can have lifelong repercussions, for both good and bad. I read it in one sitting and found it a thoroughly engaging, if slight, tale.

I believe the book has been adapted into a film starring Sean Penn and Kristin Scott-Thomas, but having read the synopsis on IMDb lots of liberties appear to have been taken with the characters and the plot. I probably won’t bother hunting it out — unless anyone can convince me otherwise.

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12 thoughts on “‘Up at the Villa’ by W. Somerset Maugham

  1. I loved this novella, I haven’t seen the film, so didn’t know that liberties have been taken. I love Kristen Scott Thomas so would be interested in knowing if it’s worth seeing too.

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  2. Interesting review. This was the first Maugham I read and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it in retrospect. I think you’ve picked up on the dialogue, which I realise was an issue for me. I also think Maugham didn’t like women very much!!

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    • I read Of Human Bondage a few years ago (I didn’t review it) and there’s a character in there that treats one particular woman with such contempt and cruelty, I did wonder whether Maugham might be a little misogynistic.

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      • I think he was a bit of a misogynist. The only Maugham I’ve read is The Painted Veil, and the female character is so roundly and comprehensively punished for her (basically understandable) act of adultery that, even knowing Maugham was a Catholic, I was a bit taken aback.

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        • Yes, I suspect he’s a product of his time… I saw the film version of The Painted Veil, which I found quite upsetting… I do want to read the book though.

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  3. Maugham is such a gap in my reading! The only one I’ve read is The Painted Veil, and yes, I read it with images from the film in my mind. (The scenery was just magnificent, especially in the opening scene). I have a two-volume collection of his short stories and Of Human Bondage so I really ought to make a start. But *chuckle* maybe not with this one!

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    • Yes, the scenery is stunning, isn’t it? I went on a raft down a river in China, just 4 people, as the sun was coming up through that rather magical limestone karst dotted landscape.

      I have decided that I really like Maugham’s work. There’s a bitter edge to his writing (and some misogyny) but he knows how humans tick and really knows how to capture emotional turmoil and moral dilemmas in his characters. I highly recommend Of Human Bondage, probably one of the best novels I’ve read in the past decade.

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  4. I read The Painted Veil recently and was completely blown away by it. I haven’t moved on since then but it looks like I should read Of Human Bondage next.

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