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.