Liza of Lambeth is the first novel published by Somerset Maugham. Maugham would go on from this humble beginning to stake a claim for himself as one of the most commercial popular writers of 20th century. Though never exactly a darling of the critics of the time (most because he was a traditional storyteller coming to public recognition just as the more experimental fiction of the Modernist movement became almost synonymous with the idea of serious fiction), Maugham rose to a stature that even now is fairly rare and at the time was reserved almost exclusively for authors with names Dickens and Twain: the novelist who could be recognized by his readers on sight. The secret to his incredible popularity with the public can effectively be traced back to Liza of Lambeth.
Maugham in a very loosely structured and conversational manner about people that just somehow feel real. Even upon meeting the most unlikely representatives of the kind of people one meets everyday—whether the infamously promiscuous Miss Sadie Thompson in his short story “Rain” or the loafer-philosopher hero in searching the world for the meaning of life in The Razor’s Edge—Maugham demonstrates that rare talent for making his characters seem immediately at home in whatever limited space exists that we call on our world. Thus, 18-year-old London factory worker Liza Kemp, her aging mother, a boy named Tom, a rogue named Jim, suddenly pregnant Sally and her demented husband Harry all seem eminently familiar even if the closest any reader has ever gotten to the wrong side of the tracks in London is watching one of those 1960’s black and white British “kitchen sink drama” which occasionally still pop up on some movie channel in the middle of the night.
Liza of Lambeth set the stage of Maugham’s career immediately. Most reviewers castigated as either a pointless endeavor in showing the dark side of human existence or as just the latest entry in a short-lived movement derisively dismissed as the “slum movement” in popular fiction. Of course, it was precisely this illumination of what book critic Jane Helen Findlater described as “the hopeless moral atmosphere” Maugham presents with “brutal frankness” without “any spirit of pity” which had readers lining up to buy it. Although mostly forgotten today in light of a series of far more famous novels, the book was successful enough to allow Maugham to completely abandon his planned medical career and devote himself full to writing.