When my 's grandmother downsized, I was invited to rescue any books she was shedding from her sizeable collection. This led to a random assortment of older volumes leaping onto my shelves that I would never otherwise have heard of (or acquired) – this is one; others include various early Penguin non-fiction titles of the colonially-incorrect variety, some fringe erotica (cool grandma!) and a much-thumbed copy of Usage and Abusage, which the family couldn't believe I didn't already own. I picked up Liza of Lambeth because I vaguely thought I ought to have read some Maugham and because I used to live in Lambeth.
Liza is a gay young lady of the working class, who lives on Vere Street with her self-absorbed drunk mother, an assortment of cheerful children, and various hard-drinking men and endlessly-pregnant or bruised wives who claim their husbands are gentle when they haven't been drinking. The novel charts Liza's downfall from the well-loved young woman out-dancing the street in her new purple dress to the social outcast pushed into a public fistfight with her rival for the amusement of her neighbours.
Having learnt that it draws heavily on his experiences as a doctor in Lambeth, I take it that Maugham was aiming for a truthful representation of his experiences of the London working class. The picnic sequence lived up to this – I rather enjoyed this glimpse of a day off in the country – but elements such as the dancing in the street to the Italian organ grinder and much of the faux-Cockney language felt like cliches. Perhaps I'm being too harsh (were these tropes already well-trodden by 1897?), but I can't blame anyone but Maugham for the strong whiff of moral and social superiority that accompany them.
Liza is a difficult heroine to root for, being self-absorbed and hard-hearted (perhaps unsurprising, considering her mother); the only likeable character, Tom, is perceived as weak or wet and is rejected repeatedly. Although the narrator never overtly comments on Liza's choices, it's difficult not to read the novel as a cautionary tale. That said, it's even-handed in its disdain for slum life as the men – Tom excepted – are all drunks, braggarts and wife beaters.
However, I found myself most troubled by the start of Liza's affair, largely because
SPOILER (mouse over to read)
I read her first night with Jim Blakeston as out and out rape: she says no, and he punches her in the stomach and pushes her into an alley. Yet in the morning, Liza is full of the joys of love. There's more than a suggestion of no means yes and all girls want it really here,
which perhaps shouldn't surprise me in Victorian literature, but was certainly the trope that bothered me the most.
Overall, it's accessible enough in spite of the idiom (I zoomed through it on the plane), but I'm at a bit of a loss as to why it was such a hit on first publication. Having only recently encountered the concept of Victorian slum fiction, I have to conclude this belongs to that popular subgenre. The novel was presumably considered sensational for not shying away from the unpleasantness of working class life – car crash literature, if you will.
It's not terrible, but I have to label it interesting rather than enjoyable.