07 January 2012

Somerset Maugham's Liza Of Lambeth

Liza Of Lambeth (1897) is perhaps Maugham's only novel which I don't have the heart to revisit. Not because it is poor, but because it is so chillingly tragic. It isn't as if his other novels are all light and sunshine. Maugham in fact always had a great eye for human tragedy and unfailingly took up themes about the impossibility of love and the doomed nature of marriages. Almost every single novel of his has a grim death in it, but nothing is as brutal as what one witnesses in Liza of Lambeth. The graphic violence and the extreme misfortune of the lead character evoke a deep sense of horror.

The book was written by Maugham when he was all of 23. It was his first attempt at writing a novel, and this he did while practising as a doctor. His work took him to the doorsteps of the poor and needy in the slums of Lambeth, and it is his experience and observations here that gave him the material for the book. To his own surprise, the novel was fairly well-received when it was published, and soon Maugham got more offers to write.

The novel is Maugham’s shortest, and also most unlike his other works. Liza of Lambeth appears distinct because it is so removed from the world the author generally sets his stories in ie upper class London. Here, in a ghetto, where the labour class resides, the mood and tenor are vastly altered. Also, a large part of the book comprises of conversations in the local slang, which makes it that much tougher to read. Yet, the story is engaging, and in the end, fans of the author will recogonise many things in the novel that only Maugham could have written.

Liza Kemp is one of the prettiest girls in Lambeth, a veritable lotus in the muck. Her life is not all rosy though, as she works as a labour girl in a local factory and then comes home to a sick, nagging mother who never has a kind word to say to her. Tom is a young, honest man, madly in love with Liza. She, however, only looks upon him as a friend and is repulsed with the idea of romancing him. Her good friend Sally is excited about going on a boat fair with her boyfriend and urges Liza to accompany them. Tom is willing to pay for her, but Liza doesn’t think it appropriate that she should take favours from someone she has no intention of marrying. Tom reassures her that he’s fine even if Liza is not interested for the moment. That instantly cheers Liza, who joins everyone else hoping to have a great time. Another reason for her happiness is the presence of Jim Blackeston, a handsome man who has recently come to stay in her neighbourhood. Jim is married with an imposing looking woman and three children. Liza feels an instant attraction towards him, and the feeling is reciprocated. Ignoring Tom, Liza tries her best to be around Jim. This angers Tom, while Jim’s wife, probably too preoccupied in other domestic thoughts doesn’t notice much. The attraction grows into a full-fledged affair and slowly tongues start wagging. Jim talks about deserting his wife, whom he says he cannot stand.

The situation starts to get messy as the women-folk refuse to take kindly to the affair. They naturally sympathise with the wife and see Liza as a callous husband stealer. When Jim’s wife senses that her husband might be leaving her for good, she unleashes her anger on Liza, giving her a fatal beating in full public view. The scene is grotesque, but it is just the kind of violence one would expect in such a place.

Jim Blackeston is pained by Liza’s death, and in anger beats up his wife. But there is every indication that he would go back to his same shoddy life and forget about the chapter with time. Liza’s mother is more concerned that she would have no one to look after her henceforth. Liza is a picture of such youthful exuberance and optimism in the novel that the reader feels an intense sadness at her life being snuffed out with such brutality. One of earliest scenes in the book has Liza exultantly walking down the street, like a diva. She stirs up a sensation and the men nearly faint with excitement. To then see her beaten black and blue on the same crowded street with no one coming forward to help in the climax leaves you with a feeling of cold disgust.

For its striking differences with Maugham’s others work, the novel still has all of his favourite themes – the mundane pattern into which marriages invariably slip into, and the all-consuming power of passion that makes individuals blind to its risks and short-comings. And Maugham since the very start seemed to understand that for many, ‘the important thing was to love rather than be loved’ Like in his other novels, here too Liza can very well go for a respectable match by way of Tom. But she simply is not drawn and cannot help it. This is a recurrent theme in almost all of the author’s books – the inability to love what is gettable, and an idealisation of a potentially destructive relationship.

Again, the disillusionment of marriage, a recurrent theme in Maugham’s oeuvre, finds a distinct voice in Liza of Lambeth too.
Jim Blackeston’s marriage has slipped into dull, domestic monotony, which is why it doesn’t take him long to fall for a younger woman.
Contrasting Liza's uncertain, desperate state is her friend Sally, who is smug and happy with her relationship and is all set for conjugal bliss. But as usual, Maugham builds a perfect apple cart only to upset it. Post marriage, Liza discovers that Sally’s husband beats her up regularly, and that all traces of love had evaporated. Sally though is too proud to admit this.

Even though the book is too grim for me, I don’t see it lacking in merits. The story is engaging, the conversations are credible, and the situations unfold with perfect plausibility. Importantly, it reveals that Maugham’s ideas about love and marriage – the two central themes of his novels – remained more or less unchanged till the very end.