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W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was born in Paris where his father, a wealthy solicitor, Robert Ormond Maugham the younger (1823-1884) served as a counselor in the British Embassy. His mother, Edith Mary Snell Maugham (1840-1882), a captivatingly beautiful cosmopolitan woman, died from complications of childbirth. “Throughout his long life, the youngest of Edith Maugham’s surviving sons could never erase from his memory his mother’s fragile beauty nor the tragedy of her death” (Rogal, 157). Maugham spent his early childhood in Paris and then between the ages of ten and thirteen he lived in England for the first time as a student in King’s School at Canterbury. Next he studied literature and philosophy at the University of Heidelberg in Germany for a year. In 1892, he returned to England to study medicine. Maugham graduated in 1897 with a medical degree as a licensed surgeon and physician, but he never practised medicine.

Maugham began his literary career as an author of slum fiction, which became quite popular and fashionable in the last two decades of the Victorian era. His first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), which has many features of naturalistic fiction, is often compared to Arthur Morrison’s slum story “Lizerunt” in Tales of Mean Streets, but it may also have been inspired by Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877), “the archetypal late nineteenth-century slum novel.” (Keating, 129) In his later literary output Maugham abandoned social realist fiction and continued to write brilliant comedies for the West End theatres as well as short stories and novels, including Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Cakes and Ale (1930), and The Razor’s Edge (1944).

Liza of Lambeth

Maugham’s début at the age of twenty-three “distressed the late-Victorian sensibility,” but the “book made a stir.” (Curtis, 5) Liza of Lambeth, originally titled A Lambeth Idyll, was the outcome of Maugham’s experience of poverty-stricken London slum life while he was an intern at St. Thomas’s Hospital on the edge of Lambeth, a slum district, which many Londoners considered worse than the notorius Limehouse area. It seems that the young medical student was more interested in the psychology of his patients than in medical practice.

The novel deals with the subject of adultery among the working class. Liza Kemp, an attractive eighteen-year-old factory worker, shares a room with her widowed alcoholic mother of thirteen children in the dismal Vere Street, Lambeth. Although Liza lives and works in a depressing overpopulated slum environment full of domestic and street violence, boredom, and vulgarity, she maintains high spirits. At the outset of the novel she is described as an attractive young girl admired for her beauty and charming grace.

It was a young girl of about eighteen, with dark eyes, and an enormous fringe, puffed-out and curled and frizzed, covering her whole forehead from side to side, and coming down to meet her eyebrows. She was dressed in brilliant violet, with great lappets of velvet, and she had on her head an enormous black hat covered with feathers.[12]

Unlike Morrison, Maugham does not present slum life only in dark colours. Slum dwellers, who have access to popular entertainment, seem to enjoy life as much as they can. Liza likes to socialise in her free time; she visits various places of amusements for the lower classes: Sunday taverns, pleasure gardens and even the theatre. She is particularly fond of dance that gives vent to her youthful exuberance and desires.

She glided through the steps, and swayed about, and manipulated her skirt, all with the most charming grace imaginable, then, the music altering, she changed the style of her dancing, her feet moved more quickly, and did not keep so strictly to the ground. She was getting excited at the admiration of the onlookers, and her dance grew wilder and more daring. She lifted her skirts higher, brought in new and more difficult movements into her improvisation, kicking up her legs she did the wonderful twist, backwards and forwards, of which the dancer is proud. [18]

Liza, who turns down a proposal of marriage by a decent young factory worker, Tom, instead becomes entangled in a secret romance with an older married man who has nine children and a pregnant wife. The story is told by a detached and objective narrator who does not comment on the moral and social issues, but the reader, however, is expected to empathise with the protagonist. In dialogues Maugham carefully reproduces the local Cockney speech with its characteristic dropping of the aitches.

’Liza’ – he couldn’t go on, and stuttered in his shyness — ’Liza, I — I — I loves yer, Liza.’ ’Garn awy!’ He was quite brave now, and took hold of her hand. ’Yer know, Liza, I’m earnin’ twenty-three shillin’s at the works now, an’ I’ve got some furniture as mother left me when she was took.’ The girl said nothing. ’Liza, will you ’ave me? I’ll make yer a good ’usband, Liza, swop me bob, I will; an’yer know I’m not a drinkin’ sort. Liza, will yer marry me?’’Na, Tom,’ she answered quietly. ’Oh, Liza, won’t you ’ave me?’ ’Na, Tom, I can’t.’ ’Why not? You’ve come aht walkin’ with me ever since Whitsun.’ ’Ah, things is different now.’ ’You’re not walkin’ aht with anybody else, are you, Liza?’ he asked quickly. ’Na, not that.’ ’Well, why won’t yer, Liza? Oh Liza, I do love yer, I’ve never loved anybody as I love you!’ ’Oh, I can’t, Tom!’ ’There ain’t no one else?’ ’Na.’ ’Then why not?’ ’I’m very sorry, Tom, but I don’t love yer so as ter marry yer.’ ’Oh, Liza!’ She could not see the look upon his face, but she heard the agony in his voice; and, moved with sudden pity, she bent out, threw her arms round his neck, and kissed him on both cheeks. ’Never mind old chap!’ she said. ’I’m not worth troublin’ abaht.’ [27-28]

Liza is quite self-confident and does not want to commit herself to early marriage which was hardly a blessing in the slum environment. However, in Victorian society marriage was the only legitimate institution for sexual relations. Liza’s awakened sexuality leads her to transgress all social codes, and eventually, she yields to the advances of her roguish lover, Jim Blackston, who attracts her more than Tom.

After that they decided to go where there was no chance at all of their being seen. They did not meet till they got over Westminster Bridge, and thence they made their way into the park; they would lie down on the grass in one another’s arms, and thus spend the long summer evenings. After the heat of the day there would be a gentle breeze in the park, and they would take in long breaths of the air; it seemed far away from London, it was so quiet and cool; and Liza, as she lay by Jim’s side, felt her love for him overflowing to the rest of the world and enveloping mankind itself in a kind of grateful happiness. If it could only have lasted! [136-137]

In Victorian England premarital sex among the working class was acceptable between unmarried couples in long-term relationships (Frost, 99), but sexual relations between a married man and an unmarried woman were condemned by both law and society. In this respect, the slum code of conduct was not much different from that of the middle class. Liza’s clandestine relationship is soon known to the residents of Vere Street, including Jim’s wife, who beats her brutally.

’Not done nothin’ ter me?’ furiously repeated the woman. ’I’ll tell yer wot yer ’ve done ter me — you’ve robbed me of my ’usbind, you ’ave. I never ’ad a word with my ’usbind until you took ’im from me. An’ now it’s all you with ’im. ’E’s got no time for ’is wife an’ family — it’s all you. An’ ’is money, too. I never git a penny of it; if it weren’t for the little bit I ’ad saved up in the siving-bank, me an’ my children ’ud be starvin’ now! An’ all through you!’ She shook her fist at her. ’I never ’ad any money from anyone.’ ’Don’ talk ter me; I know yer did. Yer dirty bitch! You oughter be ishimed of yourself tikin’ a married man from ’is family, an’ ’im old enough ter be yer father.’ ’She’s right there!’ said one or two of the onlooking women. ’There can’t be no good in ’er if she tikes somebody else’s ’usbind.’ [172-173]

After the incident Liza returns home and gets drunk with her uncaring mother, who knows nothing about her pregnancy, and on the next day she has intense bleeding. Mrs. Kemp brings a neighbour, Mrs. Hodges, who is a self-taught midwife, but she cannot help Liza, and neither can a doctor, who is called too late for treatment. Eventually, Liza dies from the hemorrhage which follows her miscarriage.

Like Morrison’s “Lizerunt” and Kipling’s “The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot”, Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth is focused on a peculiar slum culture characterised by abusive and degrading relations, brutality, degeneracy and victimisation of women who are subjected to sexual assault, rape, domestic violence and exhaustive labour. Alcoholism was rampant among the lower classes. In order to forget the drudgery of their lives, slum residents of both sexes drank heavily in pubs and at home. In Liza of Lambeth Maugham shared his experience of the maternity ward in St. Thomas’s Hospital, which made him aware that young women who lived in such a degrading environment were highly susceptible to unwanted pregnancy and the risk of miscarriage.


Liza of Lambeth, a naturalistic account of a tragic love triangle in a slum setting, shocked Victorian reviewers and readers. Maugham has demonstrated in his once popular but now rarely read novel that women were more vulnerable to the degenerative slum conditions than men.

Related Material

References and Further Reading

Barret-Ducrocq, Françoise. Love in the Time of Victoria: Sexuality, Class and Gender in Nineteenth-Century. Translated by John Howe. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

Curtis, Anthony and John Whitehead, eds. W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1987.

Frost, Ginger Suzanne. Promises Broken: Courtship, Class, and Gender in Victorian England. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.

Keating, P.J. The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction. London: Routledge, 1971.

Maugham, Somerset. Liza of Lambeth. Forgotten Books. www.forgottenbooks.org; also available from Project Gutenberg.

Rogal, Samuel J. A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997.

Last modified 18 September 2011