Forgotten Book: Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden (1928)

Virendranath Chattopadhaya, the younger brother of the Nightingale of India, Sarojini Naidu, came from an influential Bengali family settled in the state of Hyderabad. A man with a flair for languages (According to Wikipedia, he knew more than 12 languages), Chatto (as he was fondly called) was also a man devoted to the cause of Indian freedom. It was a quest that took him to England, France, Germany, Russia, and Switzerland among others. Committed to communism and in favour of an armed struggled against the British in India, Chatto published many virulent articles in newspapers leading to his being wanted by the law in many European countries. At one time married to author and activist Agnes Smedley, Viren was acquainted with some of the top ideologues and revolutionaries of the early 20th century, including M.N. Roy, Lenin, Har Dayal,  Madame Bhikhaji Cama, and Bhupendranath Datta.

Member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), Chatto was opposed to the activities of Hitler. According to Wikipedia, between 1931 and 1933, while living in Moscow, Viren continued to advocate anti-Hitler activities, Asian emancipation from Western powers, the independence of India, and Japanese intervention into the Chinese revolution. Feeling himself sidelined by the Communist Party in Russia and desirous of returning home to India, Chatto was arrested in 1937 in those infamous purges of Josef Stalin and executed the same year. India’s independence was still a decade away.

But why you may ask am I talking about a forgotten Indian nationalist in what is supposed to be a post about Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden. It is because Chatto appears as the revolutionary Chandra Lal in one of the stories, ‘Giulia Lazzari’, the story itself being based on an attempt by the British Secret Service to assassinate Chatto while he was in Europe.

 Based on Maugham’s own experience as a British agent during the first world war, the book is a collection of loosely linked stories. It is said that Winston Churchill asked Maugham to burn 14 other stories. If this is true, it is indeed sad because the stories show Maugham’s creative genius in which there is no flag-waving super spy who grinds any opposition to dust but rather an observer of people and events who can even make the reader sympathise with his opponent rather than himself. “One can’t help being impressed by a man who had the courage to take on almost single-handed the whole British power in India,”  Ashenden says about Chandra Lal.

Incidentally, I got to know of Chatto’s role in the Indian National movement and his appearence in Ashenden through this post @ prasantadas. As the writer so eloquently puts it: It is a bit strange to think that the only place where one finds a celebration of Chatto’s exploits is a story by an English writer-spy whose own reputation is in decline.


First Line: It was not till the beginning of September that Ashenden, a writer by profession, who had been abroad at the outbreak of the war, managed to get back to England.

Title: Ashenden or The British Agent
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publication Details: London: Pan, 1955
First Published: 1928
Pages: 221
Source: H.M. Library [F.M.A 86 E]
Trivia: No. 84 in the Tozai Top 100 Mysteries
Other books read of the same author: (Amongst others) Up at the Villa


Entry for FFB @ Pattinase.

14 thoughts on “Forgotten Book: Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden (1928)

  1. I really like Maugham's work and the Ashenden series is one of his best collections – great choice Neeru. The way fact and fiction merge is one fo the great attractions for me when reading him.


  2. Neeru – Thanks for sharing this. I find it fascinating how Maugham blends fiction with this history of Chatto. And Chatto's story itself is really interesting.


  3. I read this book recently and really enjoyed it. The stories are more character studies than anything else, but they are absolutely fascinating. And depressing, too; these stories make it clear that spying is a dirty business.


  4. Thanks for this review, Neeru. I hadn't realized that ASHENDEN was a collection of short stories. Obviously I'm not familiar with Maugham's work and know next to nothing about Indian history. But thanks to you and Prashant, I'm learning bits and pieces as I go along.


  5. I also know very little about Maugham and ASHENDEN, so this is very interesting information. Thanks for covering this and including all the background. I will look for a copy.


  6. Thanks Sergio, I love Maugham too – esp. his short stories which really pull at the heart-strings. After reading this, I want to re-read CAKES AND ALE as Ashenden narrates that too.


  7. Glad you found it interesting, Margot. I had no idea about Chatto too till I read that other blog post. His life seems to have been quite an adventure.


  8. Thanks Graham for visiting the blog. Yes, the characters do stand out. And only a writer like Maugham could make the German lady more sympathetic then the English spy – to me that was the most heart-wrenching story.


  9. Thanks Yvette. This year I read Maugham after a gap of almost 15 years so I am also not too familiar with his works, esp. the longer ones.There are many things that I myself have no idea about in Indian history. I hadn't even heard about Chatto prior to reading that blog post.


  10. Yes, Rain is pretty powerful. I read quite a large number of Maugham's stories during my school days. The coming year I plan to re-read them. I haven't read Of Human Bondage but have heard good things about it. Perhaps one of these days…


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