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"Up at the Villa" by W Somerset Maugham
Mary is very fond of Sir Edgar Swift. When she was a girl of nineteen and he a man of forty-three, he seemed an old man, but now when she is thirty and he is fifty-four, the difference doesn’t look so great. So, when he proposes to her, she doesn’t say no at once.
A widow disappointed in love and marriage, an orphan without a soul in the whole world to take care of her, she longs for support, for stability. Sir Edgar is about to be made a Governor of Bengal. He is rich, and Mary has only the remnants of her late husband’s fortune to live on, and since her husband was a drunkard and a gambler, there wasn’t much to inherit when he died. But Sir Edgar has to go away for two or three days to settle some matters related to his new appointment, so they arrange that Mary gives him her final answer upon his return. She is almost sure she’ll say yes.
While Sir Edgar is away, young and rich, but thorougly disreputable Rowley Flint proposes to her too. She rejects him indignantly: this young man has already divorced several wives, and wherever he goes, scandal follows him. Marrying him would be madness; she is now more determined than ever to marry Sir Edgar and as soon as possible. But on her way back home she meets a desperately poor Austrian refugee…
She decides to do this poor guy a kindness. It starts with taking him to her home and giving him food to eat; then they walk in the garden… and then, in a moment of the utmost excitement, unable to control herself, Mary decides to make poor Karl even happier. She gives him the most precious gift – herself.
At first all is well, and Karl is indeed very happy, but as the morning approaches, the fairy tale has to end, and she blurts out the truth to him: it’s not love but pity that made her do what she did. Hurt and humiliated, Karl at first tries to murder her, and when that fails, shoots himself with the revolver Mary takes out of her bag. Sir Edgar’s revolver.
The scandal that is now awaiting Mary is horrible to imagine. And she has no-one but Rowley to call for help.
That night she rediscovers Rowley. Cynical and disreputable as he is, he shares the risks with her, though he doesn’t have to, and helps her dispose of the body. He keeps his head when she can’t and pulls her out of the most unpleasant situation. Of course, in taking Karl’s body away and hiding it in the woods they commit an offence, but the scandal is averted. Mary can carry on further with her plans. If only she had taken Rowley’s advice not to tell anything to Sir Edgar!
But being naturally honest she tells him everything. Sir Edgar is a noble person; he forgives her – or says so – but now marrying her would mean he will have to ruin his career: becoming a Governor now would mean living in a constant fear that the scandal will surface. Mary, who has ruined one life already, can’t ruin another. She refuses to marry Sir Edgar. He goes away, outwardly indignant – but deep in his heart, she knows it, very much relieved. And she has nothing to do now but to marry Rowley, which no longer seems as bad an idea as it seemed a day ago.
After all, who is she to judge him? Not a woman of an impeccable reputation as she thought, but a huge sinner and, in her own words, a fool. She looks differently at herself now – and at Rowley also. Even though she doubts very much that he will ever be able to be faithful to her, she is prepared to take that risk.
Once again, Somerset Maugham proves his immensely deep knowledge of human psychology, instinctively knowing how all his characters will act in these very uncommon circumstances. Of course, if Mary hadn’t given Karl a lift that night, she would have married Sir Edgar, and her life would have been very common; there would have been no excuse to write a book about her, though. Would she have been happier? Hard to say, but I don’t think so. With Rowley she will never be bored, and if there’s ever any danger, he is going to be pretty capable of pulling himself and Mary out of it; he has proven it. He will probably even settle finally, though such men seldom settle until they get really old. It’s up to the reader to decide what is going to happen to all these people now.
It’s not Mary I feel sorry for – it’s Karl. And Sir Edgar, too, but mainly Karl. A young life cut short for nothing – but, after all, there were so many of them, victims of the Nazis. In the years to come there would be millions (judging by the known historical dates, the events in the book must have happened between the end of 1938 and the beginning of 1939, though the book itself was first published in 1953). Karl had little hope anyway – he might have died from starvation, or in the war. At least, Mary made him happy for a few short hours. And Rowley was right about this boy – he was unstable.
The book is quite short – just 94 pages – but it makes me think about so many things! I’ve read 400+-page novels that don’t come even close to this book in depth and literary value. I recommend it to everyone. You’ll find the language beautiful too – it’s easy to read, but it sings.
It was a library book, and I was be sorry to part with it when the time came to return it.
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