Home / Writers index / News and Reviews

Book of the month: Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham


With promises of wine tastings in Italy and warm sunsets in India, travel agents shout out their most tempting of siren calls to tired commuters and depressed workers. Faced with dark evenings and the winter winds that, as Munford & Sons say, litter London with lonely hearts, in March we live on the dream of escape. Swanning around her stunning villa in Tuscany, the heroine of W. Somerset Maugham’s Up at the Villa appears to have the enchanted existence we so covet. That is, until the night she commits a cold hearted crime and turns her perfect life into a game of dangerous deception. To feed your dreams and to warn you of their consequences, I give you Mary Panton – the Queen of Escapism.

Adored by Empire builder Edgar Swift and womanizer Rowley Flint, Mary makes her way through Florentine society like she had nothing to hide. As she tans on the terrace of the villa and entertains in the garden, the scenery of Tuscany and the culture of Italy silently solidifies her beauty and success. In truth, Mary left England after the violent death of her husband and declares herself to be “fed to the teeth with love”. Recovering through denial, she calmly contemplates which new proposal to accept as she sips cocktails and admires the view. Soon however, a third suitor from another class and country enters the scene and vows himself to be a slave at her goddess feet. An impoverished art student and refugee, Karl Richter sees her as one of the old paintings in the villa; to him she is a glorious treasure from a past age. Desperate not to face her past, Mary jumps at the chance to be absorbed by the beautiful world around her.

In an unexpected plot twist, Mary and the men who love her wake up to the cold reality of a dead body. As the blood spreads across the decorated stone floor and the smell of gun powder hangs in the air, their holiday comes to a gruesome end. Having all held the gun within 12 hours of the shooting, the four characters watch as fear challenges love. Driving off in her car, Mary and one of her admirers bury the body in the countryside and smile as they re-enter society. Murder or suicide, that is the question on all their minds as they contemplate her involvement with the dead person. Suddenly, the picturesque scenery of Tuscany seem to whisper old secrets and the frescoes to have witnessed crimes even bloodier. With a heroine who belongs in prison and three men who are prepared to die for her, Somerset Maugham creates one of literature’s most poignant portraits of desperation, anxiety and escapism.

Set in the late 1930’s, Up at the Villa has the glamour of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the suspense of Agatha Christie and the tragedy of Leo Tolstoy. Contrasting the last lingering ideals of the Edwardian era with the fast paced red fiat Mary drives, Somerset Maugham vocalises the period’s wavering between tradition and emancipation. His heroine’s sharp sarcasm and honest statements on marriage and sex shames most modern attempts at a provocative dialogue. Still, her outspokenness can only disturb the harmony of the old frescoes, elegant flowers and expensive champagne. She is a rare bird in an artificial garden; a feminist bound by the etiquette of another era. As an author, Somerset Maugham was most productive in the late 19th century, a time when a woman’s reputation was based on her sexual purity. 40 years and a World War later, Mary is his illustration of how nothing had changed. One false step, and her whole life is suddenly in danger.

As the misery of March hits, let yourself be swept away by Up at the Villa; a psychological thriller with a stunning view. Just remember that like all queens, Somerset Maugham’s Mary Panton is alluring but very dangerous. Disturb her need for escape, and you could be the next dead body found on the floor.

Written by Hillevi Sellén

No comments (Add your own)

Add a New Comment


Comment Guidelines: No HTML is allowed. Off-topic or inappropriate comments will be edited or deleted. Thanks.