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‘With wide lungs’: smoking, wind and air in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Merry-Go-Round

Jess Farr-Cox, Project Manager (Bristol) writes:

The Merry-Go-Round is not as well-known as other works by W. Somerset Maugham, such as Of Human Bondage and his enormous output of short stories. Despite reading Maugham for many years, I had never heard of The Merry-Go-Round until one rainy afternoon when, having finished another paperback rather more quickly than expected, I found myself in need of something to fill a boring train journey. Another favourite Maugham novel of mine is The Painted Veil, which deals, as so much of Maugham’s fiction does, with an unhappy marriage, in this case set against the backdrop of a cholera epidemic in China. Both books feature doctors and a fascination with how death, that most real and unreal of things, affects human relationships: ‘where Death is, there can be nothing petty, sordid nor mean’.[1] I bought The Merry-Go-Round in a charity shop for twenty pence. Rarely has anyone had a better return on such a small outlay, for it is not only funny and heart-rending by turns, but also thoroughly preoccupied with breathing, smoking, wind and air, as both simple facts and metaphorical devices.

Maugham plaits several narratives together through the financially independent and socially omnivorous spinster Miss Ley, who knows all the other characters. Miss Ley is a keen observer of other people’s motives and errors, and states in the opening pages of the novel one of its central concerns: ‘Beauty is quite the most important thing in the world’ (p. 18).[2] It is characteristic of her to make such a comment to her relative Bella, an unmarried woman the wrong side of forty: ‘not pretty … somewhat squarely built’ and, coupled with a rather ill-advised wardrobe, giving the overall impression of ‘very expensive dowdiness’ (p. 17). Her lack of beauty notwithstanding, Bella is soon the romantic heroine of the book, having fallen in love with a much younger man: Herbert, a tubercular poet who is later diagnosed by Miss Ley’s friend Frank. Miss Ley remarks, ‘The consumptive poet and the devoted old maid! It’s so fearfully hackneyed’ (p. 126).

Herbert is introduced to the novel with that most beautiful product of the breath, choral singing. He is sitting quietly in the cathedral over which Bella’s father presides; the organ plays softly and the imagery describing both boy and music is of the sea. After the service, Bella shows Herbert the cathedral, and they then walk outside, where ‘the warm breath of the west wind stole among the Gothic columns’ (p. 27). This entrance, illustrated with so many breathing-related images, is echoed by Herbert’s exit only a few pages later. Tuberculosis (referred to by Miss Ley with the terrifyingly old-fashioned terms phthisis and consumption) has already killed Hubert’s sister and father with dreadful swiftness, and yet as the illness progresses Herbert still sometimes feels that ‘if he could only get rid of the cough that racked his chest, he might grow perfectly well’ (p. 176). Herbert’s tuberculosis causes his relationship with Bella to develop at an accelerated rate, and (against her father’s wishes and despite an age gap of over two decades) they marry, and honeymoon in Greece because Herbert wants ‘to breathe the Attic air that the Greeks breathed’ (p. 175). They return home as Herbert deteriorates, and his death is perhaps the most beautiful part of the novel, layered with as much breathing-related metaphor as Maugham can muster. As dawn approaches and Hubert lies dying, Bella’s father (now reconciled to the marriage and deeply repentant) reads aloud an idyll of Theocritus. As his voice dies away,

no breath of wind touched the trees […] Then, a sound stole through the air, so gradual and delicate a sound that none could tell how it began; one might have thought it born miraculously of the very silence; it was a silvery, tenuous note that travelled through the stillness like light through air, and all at once, with a suddenness that startled, broke into passionate, vehement song. It was the nightingale. (p. 265)

Notice the use of the word ‘stole’, as before with reference to the ‘west wind’; perhaps we are being asked to think of the wind and the nightingale as somehow otherworldly, sneaking onto the mortal plane where they do not belong.[3] Maugham certainly describes the nightingale’s song in such terms: ‘Passion and anguish and exultation, rising and falling in perpetual harmony, sometimes the beauty was hardly sufferable’ (p. 266). A few moments after Herbert has breathed his last, the sun rises over Miss Ley, Frank and Bella in the deanery garden: ‘the very air was jocund and gay, and it was a delight merely to stand still and breathe’ (p. 269).

It is typical of Maugham that much of his plotting in this novel consists of characters making terrible mistakes, and it is beauty, or rather a willingness to prioritise beauty above other things, that leads them into poor decisions. For example, Miss Ley’s friend Basil marries a barmaid named Jenny Bush (a decision that makes them both thoroughly miserable), even though he is supposedly in love with Mrs. Murray. Indeed, Basil suffers pangs of affection for Mrs. Murray throughout his time with Jenny, but is won over by Jenny’s ‘extreme beauty’. Having begun his relationship with Jenny, who falls both in love and pregnant with alarming speed, Basil reconciles himself to it thus: ‘it would have seemed a justification of his friendship if he could have put her [Jenny] in the way to lead a more beautiful life’ (p. 63). However, the alert reader senses impending doom at the hands of forces beyond their control, through Maugham’s repeated mention of the wind. Never was the term ‘whirlwind romance’ more appropriate; here, for example, is their first kiss: ‘in his whole life he had never known a greater rapture. And his heart trembled like a leaf trembling before the wind’. (p. 65)

The passion does not last; on honeymoon, Basil notices ferns ‘chilled to death by the mild wind of September’ (p. 103), and a few pages later, Jenny, having lost both baby and Basil’s interest, drowns herself in the Thames. Basil identifies her body (‘His head reeled with the woman’s agony of fear as the water seized on her, and he felt the horrible choking, the vain effort for breath’, p. 320) and throws himself on the mercy of Frank. Frank is a sensible fellow, and knows exactly how to comfort him: ‘[Frank] took his own pipe, filled and lit it, sat down quietly, wrapping himself up as best he could, and began to smoke. The nonchalance of his movements had a marvellous effect on Basil’ (p. 323). Throughout the novel, smoking is presented as a calming ritual, and tobacco as a source or symbol of friendship. Another of Miss Ley’s friends, Mrs Castillyon, begins a disastrous affair with the caddish Reggie. They are caught holidaying together by Miss Ley, who does so entirely by accident, having changed trains purely on a whim. Sitting helplessly in a hotel dining room, the lovers speak ‘in hurried whispers, as though the very air could hear them’ (p. 145). Reggie then throws Mrs Castillyon over for another woman (Lauria), whom he immediately marries; the novel’s preoccupation with beauty demands that the only question Mrs. Castillyon asks about her is whether she is pretty. In fact, we know very little about ‘Mrs Reggie’, beyond her profession (unsuccessful actress), her wits (bright enough to have the measure of Reggie) and that she is a smoker. Miss Ley works this out on her visit to the newly-weds, and as before, the shared habit of smoking is used to bind people together:

‘Would you give me a cigarette?’ / ‘Oh, d’you smoke?’ cried Lauria with a bright look of pleasure. ‘I was simply dying for a fag, but didn’t want to shock you.’ / They lit up and Miss Ley drew towards her another chair. (p. 284)

The two women proceed to put their feet up companionably and gossip about Reggie, entirely at ease in each other’s company despite having met for the first time a few scanty pages earlier; Miss Ley even blows smoke rings. Similarly, the strength of the understanding between Miss Ley and Frank is indicated through tobacco. Here they are seeking refuge in the library from a larger group of guests:

Here Frank took from a drawer his pipe, and helping himself from a tobacco-jar placed in readiness, sat down. Miss Ley, noticing Bella’s slight look of surprise, explained. / ‘Frank keeps a pipe here and makes me buy his favourite tobacco.’ (p. 43)

Later, upset by Herbert’s diagnosis, Frank cheers himself with a pipe of purest irony:

Presently fetching his tobacco … [Frank] lit his pipe; he blew the smoke from his mouth in heavy clouds. / ‘Is it very comforting?’ asked Miss Ley, smiling. / ‘Very!’ (p. 125)

During Frank’s later crisis of confidence, he smokes his pipe (again filled from Miss Ley’s jar) with great vigour; Maugham tells us that he ‘walked up and down, blowing out the smoke furiously in white clouds’ (p. 212). Frank’s frustrations are expressed through further air- and sea-related metaphors: he tells Miss Ley that, ‘The dull stupidity of it just chokes me, so that I pant for the fresh air. I want to sail in ships and battle with hurricane and storm’ (p. 213), forgetting her warnings from earlier in the book (also using storms and sea as metaphors for more general ups and downs, one of the many ways in which Maugham suggests to us that we might wish to connect the two conversations) that life isn’t as simple as that:

‘Storms don’t rage continually, nor is the wind forever boisterous; sometimes it blows fair and strong … Sometimes the sea is placid like a sleeping youth, and the scented air, balmy and fresh, fills the heart with lazy pleasure.’ (p. 129)

Eventually, however, Maugham returns to breathing as a kind of triumph of life over death, as at Herbert’s death. The novel ends with the widower Basil marrying Mrs. Murray after all, and immediately after the ceremony they visit Jenny’s grave to lay flowers on it, swiftly followed by Frank and Miss Ley. Frank and Miss Ley then drive out of London, and Maugham draws his two themes of breathing and beauty together in the final pages:

… the dulcet breezes bore gracious odours of the country. There was a suave limpidity of the air which chased away all ugly thoughts. Both of them, walking quickly, breathed with wide lungs, inspiring eagerly the radiance of that summer afternoon. (p. 341)

[1] W. Somerset Maugham, The Merry-Go-Round (London: Vintage, 2000 [1905]), p. 57 (all other quotations are from the same edition and page numbers are embedded in the text). This particular sentence refers to Frank’s experiences as a soldier.

[2] The final lines of the book are very similar in sentiment, Miss Lay declaring to Frank that ‘for [beauty] all we suffer is richly overpaid’ (p. 341).

[3] After reading Keats and learning more about his life at a Life of Breath reading group lead by Prof. Damian Walford Davies, the resemblance between Herbert and Keats (suggested by the nightingale) is clearer. Like Herbert, Keats died young, of tuberculosis, travelled to the continent in the last stages of his illness, and had already lost his mother and brother to the disease; unlike Herbert and his brief marriage to Bella, Keats’s fear of contagion caused him to break off his engagement to Fanny Brawne and cease all physical contact with her.

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