Thursday 24 March 2016

W. Somerset Maugham, Ashenden, or, The British Agent (Collins 7D Novel, 1934)

No. 4 in a series of posts on books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly... except in this instance I have blogged about the novel, both properly and repeatedly. Admittedly I discussed different editions to this one – and indeed different books entirely – but even so... I've gone and made a nonsense of my rationale for this series of posts already, haven't I?

What is it?
An early edition of W. Somerset Maugham's archetypal 1928 spy novel Ashenden, or, The British Agent, published in, I believe, 1934 (the book is undated) by Collins as part of their 7D Novels range – a short-lived but fascinating initiative on the part of the publisher whereby hardbacks were issued at the bargain price of sevenpence; see the excellent Paperback Revolution site for more.

Who designed the dust jacket?
No idea, although judging by other examples of Collins 7D novel dust jackets I've found online – see here and here – I would guess the same artist was responsible for a good many of the wrappers in the range.

Where and when did I buy it?
On AbeBooks, from the History Bookshop in Bourton on the Water, just last week.

Why did I buy it?
A number of reasons. For one thing, Ashenden is by far the best book I've read over the past few years, a beautifully written, wonderfully measured yet devastatingly affecting novel, and a peerless piece of spy fiction to boot. For another, although I already own two editions of Ashenden – a 1934 Heinemann Collected Edition and a 1941 Doubleday edition, which boast slightly different versions of a preface Maugham provided especially for each – there was something about this petite Collins edition – perhaps that glorious dust jacket design (could the swooning woman be Giulia Lazzari, or even poor Mrs. Caypor from "The Traitor"...?), perhaps the edition's scarcity (I can't see any other copies online at present, although there is a London Book Co./Novel Library version with a recoloured jacket) – that captivated me.

And then upon receiving the book at the start of this week, I realised there's another aspect that made it worth acquiring (aside from the sweet little vintage sticker on the front endpaper, affixed by "R. Burlington, Bookseller, Whitehaven" – at the time that Cumbrian town's longest trading business)  – something that's absent from the Heinemann Collected Edition and the Doubleday edition: a five-line dedication, to Maugham's friend, Gerald Kelly, describing the novel, with admirable understatement, as a "narrative of some experiences during the Great War of a very insignificant member of the Intelligence Department".

Lastly, it's my birthday tomorrow, so I thought I'd treat myself. Happy birthday to me.

Have I read it yet?


  1. Definitely one of the masterpieces of spy fiction.

  2. Definitely one to read. I like Maugham's novel 'The
    Magician' based on his brief meetings with Aleister
    Crowley who hounded Maugham for money (to no avail).

    Interesting that Maugham actually worked in the spy
    world and Dashiell Hammett really was a detective.
    Their books certainly benefit from real experience yet writers who just dream it all up seem equally

    Hitchcock's film of Ashenden (Secret Agent) is worth
    tracking down - esp for the Peter Lorre scenes.

    Paul Connolly

    1. Thanks for the Secret Agent tip, Paul – I'll look out for that one!

    2. I'll second the recommendation for Hitchcock's SECRET AGENT. Possibly his most cynical spy film.

  3. Parts of it are rather dubiously spy fiction--like Ashenden sitting down for brandy with a high-ranking diplomat, and the man opens up to him about his lasting regrets regarding a road not taken. It's a collection of stories about human emotions, told within the setting of espionage, a subject Maugham knew well. Just as The Moon and Sixpence isn't really about art, even though Maugham was obviously very knowledgeable in that area as well. He finds a personality that confuses him in some way, and he observes it closely--yet from a discreet distance as well--on the outside, looking in. He tries to figure out what makes this person tick. And he reports his findings to us. A Confidential Agent, you might say.

    I'd say it's in the Le Carre school, except of course that it's Le Carre who is in the Maugham school. Or a special branch of it, you might say.

    And I will take this occasion to rejoice in the anniversary of your natality.

  4. The only thing better than secret service is MORE SECRET SERVICE! Happy Birthday.

  5. So Hitchcock did a movie version of Ashenden called Secret Agent, and then his next movie was Sabotage, which is based on a Joseph Conrad novel called The Secret Agent. Heh.