The Explorer, by W. Somerset Maugham
In reading this book I was struck by what aspects of it made it so appealing, and something clicked that allowed me to better understand why this author has so quickly moved up my own list of favorite authors. The author in this book manages to combine the straightforward writing of adventure novels aimed at young men from the late 19th century–a style of writing I must admit I am fond of–with the psychological insight of O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. In fact, this novel seems to share a lot with O’Neill’s later play, looking at an English family of importance that has fallen on hard times rather than a New England family, with a set of siblings that appears to split the qualities of their parents and contain different aspects of the fatal pride that prevents them from acting in ways that can best ensure their happiness. This is not a particularly famous book, at least as far as I know, but it is a powerful exploration of the psychic burdens that are felt by the children of spectacularly unsuccessful parents, and of the way that the behavior of family members often hinders our own happiness, told in an old-fashioned style that makes the message easier to take.
This book focuses on the last two members of a proud family, the Allertons, and the repercussions of their father’s financial irresponsibility and fraud, which lands him with a heavy sentence of penal servitude and an early death, and leaves the family in disgrace. The last two members of this family are the daughter Lucy and the son George. Lucy is strong and proud, but suffers like most people do from a great deal of insecurity and a desire to protect her family reputation, which leads her to break two engagements during the course of the plot and struggle to find intimacy. She loves Alec, an unsentimental and even brutal titular explorer who out of love for her takes on the weak-willed George as a protege on one of his imperialistic ventures to Africa. The plot moves between the slanders of the elite set and the gossipy newspapers of England and the brutal realities of life in Africa, and the book ends somewhat happily with the lovers reconciled with each other as Alec goes on another mission, this time to help King Leopold expand his role over the Congo, while Lucy promises to wait faithfully for him to return from Central Africa.
Reading this novel, it is difficult to see it from the vantage point of our own time, which adds some layers of irony to the plot as a whole. At the time the author wrote, there was a great deal of romance about the expansion of British authority in Eastern and Southern Africa, but even at that time King Leopold was known as a particularly brutal example of European imperialism. One wonders if the author intends on the reader to see Alec as brutally unsentimental about the expansion of European power and the eradication of slavery, opposed to brutality against the native populations on pragmatic but not sentimental grounds. One wonders if the elites of England were intentionally designed to appear as hateful and hypocritical as they do nowadays, building up someone and then tearing him down at will, and heeding the voice of slander rather than appreciating justice in its complexity. The author demonstrates a shrewd knowledge of family psychology that demonstrates long experience either observing or participating in dysfunctional families, and the book holds up today as a look at family therapy, generational curses, and imperialism, all subjects that are certainly relevant even now.