There’s a place in Maughm’s Of Human Bondage where the main character, Philip Carey, sits down and eats dinner with a family in a London tenement. Although I haven’t read this section in years, it stuck with me, because Carey eats happily with the family, no longer squeamish about accepting food cooked in less than pristine conditions. Not so many years ago, I might have written what Carey learned was “humility.” Perhaps. But maybe he had been hungry often enough in his life to appreciate company and shared food, and had no fear about poverty’s uncleanliness.

I first read this novel when I was 22. I was living in a downtown Brattleboro apartment where a running box fan fell out of our second-floor window to the sidewalk below, and, by fate’s luck, missed pedestrians on that busy Friday sidewalk. Paired up with Walden, these two dissimilar books have become the books of my adult life.

Sitting in the Washington County Courthouse, where I have become a known woman, I thought of clubfooted Philip Carey, knocking around poor and rainy London, homeless at times, desperate to become a doctor. It was fitting to think of him, in that enormous and ugly building, filled with an apparently ceaseless flow of human misery. What would be the point of all this, really, if you didn’t pass through, and, on the other side, cherish pulling up a chair and eating with others, no matter what the circumstance?

He was always seeking for a meaning in life… He seemed to see that a man need not leave his life to chance, but that his will was powerful; he seemed to see that self-control might be as passionate and as active as the surrender to passion; he seemed to see that the inward life might be as manifold, as varied, as rich with experience, as the life of one who conquered realms and explored unknown lands.

– W. Somerset Maugham


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