ROBIN MAUGHAM AT ETON
Robert “Robin” Cecil Romer Maugham (1916-81), 2nd Viscount Maugham, author, and nephew of the more famous author, Somerset Maugham, recounted his sexual experiences as a schoolboy at Eton in his autobiography, Escape From the Shadows (London, 1972), pp. 57-62 & 64-68.
Maugham went to Eton at thirteen, and was mostly unhappy there, as he had been at his preparatory school, Highfield, where one of his friends had an affair with a master recounted in Taming Mr. Rudge. His own first sexual liaison recounted here took place when he was aged fourteen to sixteen, so in about 1930 to 1932. The experience of Greek love at prep school told to him by his boyfriend must have been in around 1929.
The footnotes are this website’s. These include an important observation on the trustworthiness of Escape From the Shadows as a truthful account of Maugham’s life and sincere expression of his views.
Escape From the Shadows
For my ﬁrst year at Eton I lived in a state of intermittent panic. One of my duties as a lower boy was to cook the sausages and eggs for my ‘fag-master’s tea. I’d been warned not to burn them, because if I did I would be sent to the Captain of the House to be caned. I lived in a nightmare. From the ﬁrst week I was unpopular. I was shocked by the dirty stories and swear words I now heard for the ﬁrst time. This made the other lower boys consider me an opinionated prig. My slender build invited bullying. When I was frightened and revolted by their horseplay I was considered effeminate. […]
My memories of Eton are strangely acute. I can recall precisely – as if the whole ﬁlm of it were running through my mind — the movements and dialogue which led to a turning-point in my life.
Each boy in our House had a small room of his own. It was a strict rule that no boy should enter another boy’s room after lights out. M’ Tutor, as we called our housemaster, would make a nightly round of the House to make certain this vital rule was kept. Along the corridor from me lived a boy of my age -- fourteen. I will call him Drew. He had never joined in bullying me, and for this reason alone I was grateful to him. He was dark-haired and lithe, and there was an odd secretive look about his lean face and dark eyes. He was a ﬁne athlete and a favourite of M’ Tutor for that reason. At prayers in the dining-hall in the evening I would often look up and see him gazing at me.
One evening after M’ Tutor had made his nightly round, the door of my little room opened and Drew came in and closed it softly behind him. By the glow of the ﬁre which we were allowed twice a week I saw that he was wearing only a dressing--gown. He sat down on the chair by my small table which I used as a desk.
“I want to talk to you,” he said quietly.
“Talk to me tomorrow,” I whispered back. “There’ll be the hell of a row if you're caught here.”
“I won’t get caught,” Drew replied. “M’ Tutor’s done his rounds, and he won’t come back because he’s got a dinner-party tonight. I saw all the cars outside.”
“What do you want to talk about?” I asked.
“You,” he said.
“What about me?”
“You’re just plain wet.”
“Thanks for the compliment,” I said.
“But you don’t need to be so hopeless at everything. You could get on quite well if you tried.”
“And do what?” I asked.
“Do you know what they call you behind your back?”
“The walking dictionary.”
“Because you use such idiotic long words. The kind of words grown-up people use. And they think you’re showing off.”
“Well, I’m not,” I answered. “At home I live with grown-ups most of the time, and I suppose I pick up the words they use.”
“Then start picking up the kind of words we use."
Drew got up from the chair and came and sat at the end of my bed.
“You’re still pretty green, aren’t you?” he said.
“I suppose so," I answered.
“You play with yourself, of course. You toss yourself off.”
I could feel myself blushing. “Yes,” I said, “sometimes.”
“Have you ever done it with anyone else?”
“But someone must have tried.”
I thought of Neal with his freckled face. “Yes,” I answered.
“Then why didn’t you do it?"
“I'm not sure, really,” I said.
“I bet I know why," Drew said. “It was because you were scared. You were scared of being found out.”
“But what if you were dead certain you’d never be found out? Then what?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Do you think it's wrong?”
“People think it is.”
“Not all people don’t. Some people who are really intelligent go in for it. Shall I tell you a secret? Promise you’ll never tell any of the others?”
“Well, it’s this. My last term at prep school the Headmaster himself caught me doing it with another boy one night in the gym. We weren't doing much. I mean, we'd still got pyjamas on. Well, he told us to go to his study.
“When we got there, he told us to stand ﬁve paces apart. Then he told us to take off our pyjamas, so we were naked. ‘Now,’ he said to us, ‘is there anything wrong with that? Answer me.’ So we said, ‘No.’ Then he put his arm round my shoulder and led me over to the other boy, and then he put his arm round our waists and drew us together so that our bodies were clasped together. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘is there anything wrong with that?’ I guessed what he wanted me to say, so I said, ‘No’, and after a pause, my friend said ‘No’ too. Then the man took hold of us and pressed us gently together, and after a while we came. ‘There’s nothing wrong with it,’ he repeated. ‘But you must keep it a secret because most people are so stupid they think it a crime, and you can get put into prison for what you’ve just done.’ So then he unlocked the door of his study and we left him. But he sent for me the following night, and he made me do it with him . . . I went with him several times before I left school.”
I was silent. Drew’s story had revolted me. I wondered if it was true.
“So you see,” Drew said, “there’s nothing wrong with it so long as you don’t get found out. And if you swear to keep it a secret, and I swear I’ll never tell a soul, then -- if we did it —there isn’t a chance we can ever be found out.”
I was silent. I could feel my heart thudding against my chest, and I was afraid. I felt I was walking in darkness near to a precipice. I knew we would both be expelled if we were found out.
“I’ve been mad about you ever since I ﬁrst saw you,” Drew said. “Quite crushed on you.”
I was certain that at least this was the truth, because I could remember that each time I looked at him in prayers, he had been staring at me. But I was still frightened.
“Wait till tomorrow night,” I said hesitantly. “Give me time to think about it.”
But even as I spoke I knew I wanted it now. And then I remembered the boy at the window in London when I was a child. I had been frightened so I had sent him away. I no longer believed in the boy who could ﬂy. But this was real. The boy was sitting at the end of my bed. Suddenly he got up, and I was afraid he would go. But he didn’t go. Very slowly he took oif his dressing-gown and threw it on to the chair and stood before me naked. His shoulders were heavy, his skin was very smooth, his waist and thighs were so delicate that his genitals seemed almost obscenely large.
“Please,” he said.
“I promise I’ll let you know in the morning.”
“No,” he answered. “It’s got to be now.”
I was silent. A coal ﬂashed in the grate, and I saw that his whole body was taut and trembling. I could feel the power of his desire surging through the little room.
“Please,” he urged. “You’ve got to say ‘Yes’ now, otherwise I’ll just stand here waiting all night.”
I laughed because I was happy. I knew that at last something a part of me had longed for—or rather something Tommy had longed for -- was going to happen.
Slowly and quietly he slipped into my bed and put his arms round my neck. I pressed his lithe body against me. The skin of his waist was very warm and smooth. I wanted to remain in that wonderful state of calm mixed with the most intense happiness I had ever known. But soon Drew’s body began to move, and gently he turned away from me, so I could caress his lean back and heavy shoulders. Then he took my hand and guided it so that presently our bodies were joined together.
* * *
I had thought that my experience with Drew would change his attitude towards me in the House. But the following day he was as aloof and distant as ever, and he made no effort to help me when I was being bullied by the other boys. Yet, that night, after our housemaster had been round the rooms, Drew came to visit me again.
“Why didn't you do something to help me?” I asked Drew when we were clasped together.
Drew kissed my forehead. “Don’t be so wet,” he said. “If I suddenly started defending you and became your friend, they'd all guess at once that something was going on."
With that explanation I had to be content. I could have argued with him, but I was afraid of losing the happiness I now possessed. Meanwhile, each term — or ‘half’ as we called it —dragged by. Grey afternoons of trudging along the Slough road towards the distant playing-ﬁelds were followed by long evenings as an oarsman rowing in the Lower House boat, being shouted at hectically by a coach. While I was still a lower boy, I made no friends except Drew. And Drew could visit me only in secret. Moreover, I was beginning to get suspicious of him.
Drew was waiting for me one day when I came into my room. He beckoned me over to him and told me to lock the door. This was dangerous because a strict House rule forbade one to lock one's door. It was possible to it shut with a scout's stave, but this was not allowed and could be punished by a caning.
“Don't be a fool,” I said to Drew. “Anyone may come in.”
"Don’t worry,” Drew said. “It's all right."
And he took my right hand and put it into his pocket. But he had cut the outer seam so that my hand slipped right in and touched the ﬂesh between his thighs.
“You do the same with your trousers, and we can always pull back our hands at a second’s notice.”
I still kept the pathetic hope that one day Drew would become so fond of me that he would prove himself my friend publicly. I welcomed any chance of contact with him, so I obeyed him. But later that afternoon, when I was alone in my room again, I began to wonder if I were the only person who had slipped his hand through the split seam. One evening, after three hours of rowing in a skiff on the river, and being shouted at by the zealous coach, I began to walk back towards the House. Then, suddenly, I began to run, for I was in a frantic eagerness to see Drew. I walked quickly into his room. Drew was standing behind the door. With him was an older boy called Tait, an upper boy — very popular because he was good at games and always seemed contented and full of vitality. Drew and Tait moved apart as I came in. Tait laughed. His pale hair had fallen over his forehead, and he was sweating. Drew was breathing heavily.
“So we've got a visitor," Tait said, pushing his hands down into his trousers. “Care to join us?"
For an instant I gazed at his ﬂeshy nose and large blue eyes and wide smile. Then I turned round and left the room.
The following evening, during the period when we were supposed to prepare our work for the next day, Tait came into my room. I said nothing. For a while he walked round the room in silence. He carried an exercise book in his hand.
“You’re supposed to be good at French,” he said. “Can you help me with this translation?"
“I’ll try,” I replied.
I sat down at my desk. Tait opened his exercise book and showed me the page he had to translate into French. I took a piece of paper and began to write. As I spoke he slid his right hand down between my thighs. I got up from the chair. He put his arms round me and held me tight against him. I could feel that he was trembling.
“Don’t be afraid,” Tait whispered. “It’s all right. I know you've done it with Drew. Just let me feel you. That’s all I want.”
His forehead was sweating again, and he was trying to smile.
"I’m sorry,” I said. “But I can't.”
His large hands were now thrust deep into his pockets. His blue eyes glared at me.
“I could help you,” he said. “I could stand up for you. Please let me.”
“I'm sorry,” I repeated.
Tait strode to the door. “You're just a little runt,” he said. The door slammed behind him.
That night when Drew came into my room, I let him get into my bed, but I lay without moving.
“What's wrong?” he asked.
“You know what’s wrong,” I said. “You've been doing it with Tait.”
Drew was silent for a moment. His hand stroked my shoulder gently.
“Yes,” he said after a pause. “I’ve been doing it with Tait. But do you think I care tuppence for him? I do it with him because he could make life hell for me if I didn't."
I said nothing. By the light of the moon coming in through the half-open window I could see that Drew was gazing at me solemnly.
“Can’t you see that it doesn’t matter?” he asked. “We’re together. That’s all that counts.”
“So you let him . . .” I began.
Suddenly Drew grasped me ﬁercely. “Yes. I let him,” he said. “I've told you I let him. And if you weren't such a stupid little idiot, you'd let him too."
I was silent. I did not move. Presently Drew slipped out of my bed and left the room.
For three nights he did not visit me; and I lay in agony, thinking of him being grasped in Tait’s sinewy arms. For the ﬁrst time in my life I felt the misery of jealousy which springs from an intensely possessive love. Then, on the third night, my door opened quietly and Drew came in. Without a word he took off his dressing-gown and got into my bed. I kissed his shoulders and put my arms round him.
* * *
We never referred to Tait again. On several occasions Tait came into my room on some pretext or another, but in spite of his threats I would never let him touch me. Whenever it was possible I continued to have Drew — until two years later when he was expelled from school for being found in bed with a small boy.
* * *
Looking back at those years, I now believe — at the age of ﬁfty-ﬁve —that if I had my chance again I would have behaved differently with Tait for the sake of gaining his friendship. For the sake of his protection I would have given in to him—to a certain degree. But I still am not sure that I would have been right to do so.
* * *
Meanwhile I continued to be bullied, and I was often unhappy - except during the moments I spent with Drew. [...]
* * *
It was Tommy who led me over the bridge to Windsor, which was out-of-bounds. It was Tommy, I think, who made me stop in a side street in front of a shop which sold guns and fishing-tackle. ‘C. Morrison’ was painted in unusually fine sloping letters above the window. As I looked in at the display of guns, I saw a four-ten double-barrelled shotgun which immediately attracted me. [...]
I pushed open the door of the shop. A little bell tinkled as the door opened, and I closed it behind me. The shop was empty. Then a man, presumably Mr. Morrison himself, came hurrying down the staircase at the back. He was about forty-five, I reckoned, with silver hair, a short nose, and rather full lips. He was neatly dressed and very clean. He was wearing a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles, which seemed to accentuate the oddly pious expression of his face and made him look more like a clergyman than a shopkeeper. He gazed at me for a moment, then smiled pleasantly.
“And what can I do for you?” he asked.
There was something unusual about his cockney accent. It was somehow unreal—like that of an inexperienced actor trying to play some dialect part. I asked him if I could see the four-ten gun in the window. He walked over to fetch it. He moved with light, precise steps. Carefully he laid down the gun on the counter. I looked at it, entranced. The barrels were oily and gleamed faintly in the afternoon light. The butt was well carved.
“How much is it?” I asked.
“Four pounds and twelve shillings,” he said.
I must have sighed because the man smiled at me once again.
“Haven’t you got that amount?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I haven’t.”
At school, boys paid tailors’ shops or bookshops on order forms which had to be signed by the House Dame—a rather grand type of housekeeper. I also had one shilling a day to spend at the school stores (two eggs on fried bread cost ninepence, and ‘three of long’—chips and tomato sauce—cost threepence). In addition to this my parents gave me an allowance of six pounds a term, but half of this I had already spent.
The strange man smiled at me yet again. “Look at the gun,” he said. “Feel it. Handle it. And you’ll see it’s worth every penny I’m asking.”
As he spoke, I heard the shop bell ring. I turned as a boy of about fourteen walked in. He was very slender, with straw-coloured hair and violet eyes. The shopkeeper’s attention switched off from me as if he had flicked a light switch.
“Ronnie,” he said to the boy, “your tea’s upstairs. Hurry along up or it’ll spoil.”
Ronnie gave me a cheerful grin, then turned back to the shopkeeper. “Right-o!” he said and sprung lightly up the stairs.
The shopkeeper turned back to me. “Four pounds twelve,” he said. “But if you come back the next afternoon you’ve got some time off I’ll see if we can’t do something about reducing the amount.”
He walked round the counter towards the door. “And now, if you’ll forgive me, I’m closing the shop,” he said. “I muse get up to my boy. See you soon.”
That night, images of the gun’s dark, smooth barrels and of Ronme, with his long, straw-coloured hair and graceful movements, flitted through my dreams.
Two weeks later I visited the shop again. I had managed to beg a pound note from my mother when she had come to see me. So I now had four pounds; I was full of hope. The shop window had changed. One section of it was now devoted to wireless sets, and a small card announced: ‘Wireless Sets Sold and Repaired’. However, the four-ten gun was still there. From an open upstairs window came the sound of jazz distorted by a loud crackling noise. I walked into the shop. Mr. Morrison greeted me warmly.
“I was wondering if I’d ever see you again,” he said.
“I’ve got four pounds,” I announced.
“That’s better than nothing,” Mr. Morrison replied. “By the way, do they allow you to have guns at school?”
“No,” I answered. “I’m going to ask you to have it packed and posted to my home, if you don’t mind.”
“That’ll cost more.”
“I know,” I answered. “But I’ve got four whole pounds.” And I held out the four pound notes for him to see. For a while there was silence. Mr. Morrison had stopped smiling. Behind the steel-rimmed spectacles his eyes were watching me carefully.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Fifteen,” I answered.
“So I expect you have plenty of larks with the other boys in your House?” Mr. Morrison said.
Somehow I had a feeling that if I said ‘No’ too definitely I’d never get the gun. “Sometimes,” I replied cautiously.
Again there was silence. Suddenly he leant forward and touched my chin. “You’ve got very smooth skin,” he said. “My boy, Ronnie, doesn’t have to shave either. But in some ways he’s old for his age. And he’s very clever with his hands. That’s why I’m setting him up in the wireless business.”
I was still holding the four one-pound notes. With an abrupt laugh Mr. Morrison leaned forward and took the notes from my hand.
“All right,” he said. “Gun’s yours.”
He pushed an account book and a pencil across the counter. “Write down your name and address,” he said. Then he went to the window and took out the gun. “You’ve got a real bargain there,” be said. “You’re a very lucky young lad. And I don’t mind telling you this, if Ronnie hadn’t taken a fancy to you I’d never have let the gun go so cheap.”
I broke open the gun and looked down the barrels. They were immaculately clean with a light coating of oil.
“I’ll be closing up shop quite soon,” Mr. Morrison said. “So there’ll be no interruptions. Why don’t you go upstairs and have a chat with Ronnie? I’ll join you presently.”
“Ronnie doesn’t take a fancy to many people,” Mr. Morrison said. “So you can count yourself lucky on that score too.”
He put his arm around my shoulders and pushed me towards the stairs. At the top of the stairs, leading off a small landing, was a door. I knocked and opened it. The music still blared from the loudspeaker. Immediately facing me was a long kitchen table strewn with parts of wireless sets. At the far end of the room there was a double bed. Ronnie was lying on it, naked except for a pair of blue shorts. He looked up at me. “What are you doing up here?” he asked.
I stared at him in surprise. “Your father said you wanted to see me,” I stammered.
The boy sprang from the bed and walked up to me. He stood very close to me so that I could hear his whisper above the noise from the loudspeaker. “Father!” Ronnie said. “Is that what he told you? That he’s my father?”
“But isn’t he?” I asked.
The boy shook his head in disgust. “I’ll say he’s not,” he whispered. “He’s just taken me on. Better him than a reform school… And you get used to almost anything in time.”
I gaped at Ronnie. Then suddenly I understood. I looked at the alabaster-white skin of his shoulders and at his small waist. I began to feel sick. I could think of nothing to say.
“Can’t you see what he wants?” Ronnie whispered. “He wants us to do it together, so he can join in with the two of us… Have you paid him for the gun?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Right-o!” Ronnie said. “I’ll see that you get it safely. But if you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave now, and you’ll leave quick.”
Then he put his arm round my shoulder and kissed me on the mouth. “Perhaps one day we’ll meet again. At any rate, I hope so,” he said.
I put my arms round him. For an instant I held him tight. Then I walked quickly out of the room.
Mr. Morrison was moving, with a key in his hand, towards the door when I came down the stairs. He looked up at me in surprise. “You didn’t stay long,” he said.
“Sorry,” I muttered, “but I remembered I’d promised to help a friend with his prep. When will you send off the gun?”
“Tomorrow,” he said. “I’m scrupulously honest in my business matters.”
* * *
Three days later, when I ring up our house in the country, my mother told me the gun had arrived. I was pleased. But I still couldn’t forget the image of Ronnie lying on the bed. And in my imagination I could now see Mr. Morrison beside him.
“Better him than a reform school.” Ronnie had said, and I felt sad that there was nothing I could do to help the boy. However, I was so haunted by the thought of him being under Mr. Morrison’s influence that I decided to visit the shop once again, on the pretext of ordering cartridges.
Once more I walked down the side street. But when I reached the shop it was empty, and a ‘TO LET’ sign was stuck across the window.
I walked into the little sweet-shop next door and asked if they knew where Mr. Morrison and Ronnie were.
“Mr. Morrison’s mother’s died,” I was told. “It seems she left him some money. So they packed up the shop and moved to some place where she’d lived.”
So Ronnie was another person I never saw again.
* * *
As the days passed, I realised how much I had been shocked when I had discovered the truth about Mr. Morrison and Ronnie, for I had never believed that a man could lie in bed with a boy and love him in the ways that Drew and I did each other. I now saw Mr. Morrison as personifying the evil which I had sometimes sensed when I had seen one of the older boys in my House coming out of a small boy’s room.
Somerset Maugham and the Maugham Dynasty
A strangely very different account of Maugham's sexual initiation was much later given by Bryan Connon in his Somerset Maugham and the Maugham Dynasty (London, 1997). His source is not stated, but looks likely to have been Maugham's friend at Eton, Michael Pitt-Rivers, who appears in the author's list of acknowledgements.
Robin's unhappy life did not alter radically until an older boy found him sexually attractive; it was the first of a series of affairs which brought transitory affection, satisfied his lust and gave him a sense of self-assurance.
 Maugham’s final autobiography Search for Nirvana (1975) seems to be far more truthful and sincere. He introduces it as the result of a recent decision “to try and put my confused mind in order and to come to terms with my own spirit.” Later in it he said of his earlier writing that “What Harold Nicolson called ‘the nursery governess’ who he maintained peered disapprovingly over the shoulder of every English writer of a certain class, was still overlooking mine. I could not help feeling reticent. But in the last few years my whole life has altered, and I can now fill in the parts of the text which the ‘nursery governess’ suppressed. I can fill in all the gaps.”
Hence one can understand and sympathise with significant omissions from Escape From the Shadows such as the open and exclusive boysexuality of his friend and frequent travelling-companion Michael Davidson or his own sexual involvement with mid-teen boys beautifully described in Nirvana.
Unfortunately, Escape From the Shadows goes much further than this. Questions are raised about the truth of the narrative or the sincerity of its author when one learns from Connon’s Somerset Maugham and the Maugham Dynasty (excerpted on this page) that this man who describes the sexual liaisons of pubescent boys with youths or men as “evil” (even in cases where he acknowledges the full willingness of the boy) had in fact been unhappy at Eton until he had an affair with an older boy, and when one learns from Nirvana that he had as a man gone on to delight in adolescent bodies.
Furthermore, according to Connon, Maugham was severely alcoholic and ill by the time he wrote either autobiography. Both were largely written by the journalist Peter Burton, making them even less reliable records of his life and opinions. Burton's authorship is corroborated by Davidson, who told a friend in 1971: "I hear now and then from Peter Burton, who's on Ibiza writing Robin's autobiography for him (I introduced them, with the result that RM now has somebody very competent to write his books, film-scripts &c for him ...)." Writing to the same friend after staying with Maugham the following Christmas, he added: "Went through a new book or two of his, including his 'autobiography' which is more like a piece of his fiction" (Letters of 20 October 1971 and 28 January 1972 to Tim Brierly in the Michael Davidson Archive in the present editor's custody).
 J. C. Butterwick, described on pp. 55-6.
 A slightly older friend at his preparatory school who had tried unsuccessfully to seduce him.
 An imaginary boy of great daring who embodied everything Maugham wished in vain that he was himself.