Deciding her future, Mary Panton spends the summer in a villa outside Florence, Italy. She’s in a contest between four men. One man, her husband, whom she deeply loved, has died. A gambler, he left her an income, but it’s insufficient for her to maintain her current lifestyle. A second man, Edgar Swift, intends to make her his wife. He’s older, a member of her father’s generation, but he’s well-established, and as the future Governor of Bengal, he offers her status. The third man, Rowley Flint, has a reputation of being untrustworthy; he’s a documented womanizer, who has already been through a few marriages and divorces. He eyes Mary as his next conquest. And the fourth man is Karl Richer, an Austrian refugee, who protested against the Nazis and hence had to flee his homeland to escape punishment. A refugee in Italy, he’s penniless and hopeless, but he’s the man who tugs at Mary’s heart. With tragic consequences!
Up at the Villa is a novella—fewer than a hundred pages—written by W. Somerset Maugham. Though short, it tells a compelling drama about forbidden love and the consequences. At the heart of the story is Mary’s need to decide what comes next in her life. I’ve read this novel several times—in fact, I read it almost every two or three years—but it was only during this last reading that I realized that the plot question revolved around what man she wanted to love. There’s another dilemma at the center of the plot, and since it’s a more dramatic dilemma, I have always been so focused on it that I ignored the more essential question. What man should she love?
No doubt, there are feminists out there wondering why that has to be the central question. It’s a fair criticism to note it’s sexist to assume that Mary’s happiness involves choosing a man. In defense of the novel, I will say that it was published in 1941, a time when the most common goal for any female character concerned marriage. In further defense, I’ll say that Mary is no feminist. A modern feminist can point to Mary Panton as an example of what’s wrong with traditional gender roles, but Mary herself never doubted the role she had to play in society. Once her husband died, she had the choice between two roles—the widow or the wife to her second husband. Due to her disappointing inheritance, the first option meant a comfortable but not luxurious life. Wanting wealth and status, she knew she had to marry.
The villa stood on the top of a hill. From the terrace in front of it you had a magnificent view of Florence; behind was an old garden, with few flowers, but with fine trees, hedges of cut box, grass walks and an artificial grotto in which water cascaded with a cool, silvery sound from a cornucoopia. The house had been built in the sixteenth century by a noble Florentine, whose impoverished descendants had sold it to some English people, and it was they who had lent it to Mary Panton.
Who to love is an external conflict. It serves as the framework for the internal conflict. We talk about fiction being either plot-driven or character-driven. In my opinion, it’s not an either-or issue but one concerning degree. How much of what happens is driven by the plot? How much is driven by character? If we have to choose, then Up at the Villa is clearly driven by character. It’s Mary who decides what happens. She’s in complete control. Though she often considers herself the victim, though she often resigns herself to the judgment of the men around her, it’s her decisions and actions that move the plot forward. In this, Mary conflicts between the woman she believes she is and the woman who she is. In the end, this is a novel about self-discovery.
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) is best known for his classic novel, Of Human Bondage (1915). His The Razor’s Edge (1944) is also well-known here in America; it had inspired a couple movie adaptations, the latest, released in 1984, starred Bill Murray. I mention this movie because it was by watching it that I first learned about Maugham. After watching the movie, I read The Razor’s Edge and loved it. Since then, I felt I should know more about Maugham, read more of his novels and stories. For the most part, I have failed. I’ve owned a copy of Of Human Bondage for almost thirty years without even trying to read it.
I had read a short story by him called “Rain.” It was published in 1921, under the title of “Miss Thompson.” It’s an interesting story because it’s set in Pago Pago, and its central conflict is between a prostitute and a pious missionary. Trapped in Sonoma by a measles quarantine, the missionary strives to save the prostitute’s soul, but Miss Thompson has little desire for her soul to be saved. As you can imagine, at the root of this is the moral dilemma concerning how right is it to involve yourself in another’s business, even for their benefit, when it’s against their will. It’s the conflict between Christianity and sin, but it’s also a conflict between social expectations (acceptable behavior) against individuality.
From what little I’ve read Maugham, that seems to be a theme of his—the individual in society. The Razor’s Edge details the story about a man’s spiritual quest, but in that quest, he becomes a nonconformist. As is Miss Thompson, the prostitute in Pago Pago. And so is Mary Panton in Up at the Villa. She struggles between what society expects her to be and her real attitudes and desires. I think this is why I keep coming back to this novella every few years. I love stories about nonconformists.
The tears were flowing down Mary’s face and she made no effort to restrain them. Rowley, thinking perhaps that it woud relieve her to cry, sat still and said no word. Presently he lit a cigarette.
‘Give me one too. I’m being stupid.’
He took a cigarette out of his case and handed it to her.
‘I’d like my handkerchief. It’s in my bag.’
The bag was between them and when he opened it to find her handkerchief he was surprised to feel a revolver.
Another reason I love this novella is its length. Though I love and prefer long novels, I sometimes enjoy the mood for a short novel. I love those novels I can read during a long evening or over the course of a weekend. Up in the Villa is often the novel I select to sate that mood. No doubt, it’s a favorite. I’m sure it’ll become one of yours.