Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular British writers of his time. He
was born in the British Embassy in Paris in 1874 and grew up bilingual in
English and French. He also spoke German. His father and grandfather had been
prominent litigators in England and France, and though Maugham seemed destined
to follow in their footsteps, he had a severe stutter and would never have been
able to argue in a courtroom.
Maugham pursued a career in medicine and wrote fiction in his spare time.
During World War I he worked for the Red Cross in France as an interpreter and
medical assistant. In 1915, Maugham met an intelligence official, who recruited
him to join the SIS, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. His first novel,
Of Human Bondage, had just been published. The official suggested to
Maugham that his language skills would benefit the intelligence service and
that he could use his writing as a cover for his spying activities.
As an agent in the SIS, Maugham's first assignment was in Geneva, where he
installed himself as a French playwright and succeeded in acting as an
intermediary between other agents in the field and top intelligence authorities
in Britain. Maugham sent coded messages, often embedded in a manuscript, which
passed out of the country and back in without drawing the attention of the
Swiss police. He worked for the SIS without pay as a patriotic gesture.
In 1917 Maugham thought his duties with the SIS were over, but when the Russian
revolution broke out, Sir William Weisman, chief of British intelligence in the
U.S., convinced him to go to St. Petersburg on another mission. Maugham was
asked to gather intelligence on the German spy network developing in the
Russian capital and to support the Mensheviks by countering Bolshevik plans to
pull Russia out of the war. Posing as a writer for U.S. publications, Maugham
met with Alexandr Kerenski, the socialist leader. Kerenski sent Maugham to
London with a desperate request to the Allies to raise an anti-Bolshevik army.
Maugham sent back significant information to London and developed a plan for
the SIS to maintain a group of agents in Russia to combat German influence on
the Provisional Government through propaganda and spying.
Maugham wrote a number of stories about his experiences in espionage. Warned
prior to publication that some of the stories violated Britain's Official
Secrets Act, he burned most of them. The surviving stories, including an
account of his mission to Russia, were published in his 1928 book
Ashenden. He gave a character in the book the name Somerville, the cover
name he used during his real-life espionage activities in St. Petersburg.
Somerset Maugham is believed to be the first author of spy books who actually
was a spy. Though his spy life provided ample fodder for his writing, he never
had much enthusiasm for the work. In his foreword to Ashenden he wrote,
"The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole
monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless."