I've read Maugham's memoirs and his nephew Robin Maugham's (annoying & spiteful) bio of him, but Hastings had unprecedented access to materials that no one has before. The result is a thorough and sympathetic but clear picture of the man who was the best-selling British author of his time; celebrated, wealthy, and intensely private. When Maugham was in his twenties, Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and imprisoned for his homosexuality and that colored Maugham's whole life. Although many people close t him knew he was gay, he kept a low profile and when he was older, he burned most of his correspondence and asked friends to do the same. Of course, many didn't and the result is that Hastings can tell us quite a lot about his sexual life. But that isn't what interested me about this biography.
When I was in college in the 80's, studying for an English degree, Maugham was never mentioned. In fact, I think he's still left out of the English canon of literature. I had read several of his novels in grade school because they were on my grandfather's shelf and I read anything I could get my hands on, and he continues to be one of my favorite authors. I was so surprised that such a popular (in his time) and high quality writer was ignored that I wrote an essay defending him for my university's English department newsletter. It wasn't because he was gay. It wasn't because he was often classed as a misogynist (which I don't think he was). It wasn't because his prose or topics were dated. Many of the so-called dead white male authors in the canon meet one or more of these criteria. I think this biography finally answered the question for me.
For most of his life, he was hailed as a success. His plays and stories were best-sellers and made lots of money. He was highly social and had many friends. But toward the end of his life, Maugham was surrounded by people who wanted his money and his approbation, and many manipulated him for those things. He began to lash out, sometimes indiscriminately, through his fiction and in other ways. At some point, public opinion turned against him. And I think that distaste, and in some cases misunderstanding, persisted. Thankfully, he seems to be enjoying a small resurgence of popularity. I hope many people read his books. My favorites are [b:The Razor's Edge|31196|The Razor's Edge|W. Somerset Maugham|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348127938s/31196.jpg|2095259], [b:Of Human Bondage|31548|Of Human Bondage|W. Somerset Maugham|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347260157s/31548.jpg|2547187], and the [b:Ashenden|887797|Ashenden|W. Somerset Maugham|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320419387s/887797.jpg|552471] stories.
A few things I learned were new to me. First, I knew that his long-time companion Gerald Haxton was mad, bad and dangerous to know, but I don't think I quite understood just what a flawed and mean person he was. Same with Alan Searle. What an a**hole! And Syrie, Maugham's wife; I knew the bad side of her (who wouldn't with his fiction and non-fiction portrayals of her in his books!), but Hastings is fair and balanced in her portrayal of Syrie and I understood and sympathized with her more.
All in all, it was a quick read for me, even at 640 pages, and I plan to buy my own copy to add to my two shelves of Maugham books.