W. Somerset Maugham’s The Magician was published in November 1908 and features Oliver Haddo as an arrogantly erudite occultist who’s loosely based on Aleister Crowley. Although both shared some common characteristics, Haddo is a gross misinterpretation of Crowley’s life and purpose, which prompted him to write a critique of the novel in Vanity Fair later that year (the British magazine, not the modern fashion magazine of the same name).
Aleister Crowley in Paris and the Bohemians at Le Chat Blanc
In the early 1900s, Crowley, Maugham, and the painter Gerald Kelly (the brother of Crowley’s first wife, Rose Edith Kelly) were all living in Paris.
Kelly introduced Crowley to the bohemian regulars at Le Chat Blanc, off rue d’Odessa in Montparnasse (called the Chien Noir in The Magician), and Crowley was soon a regular himself (Hastings 120).
Why the negative portrayal of Crowley in the novel? For one, Maugham disliked Crowley immediately upon meeting him. Second, Maugham was a lifelong friend of Kelly. When Crowley married Rose, it was to save her from being forced into an arranged marriage by her family. But marrying Rose damaged Crowley and Kelly’s relationship, and it seems Maugham took the family’s side in the affair.
In contrast, Maugham was very fond of Kelly and The Magician was originally dedicated to him. But Maugham was “sufficiently shaken by the reaction” of the head of the publishing company (who decided not to print the novel) that he removed the name “in order to protect his friend from association with an obscene work” (Hastings 120).
Kelly was probably the inspiration for the handsome portrait painter, Frederick Lawson, in Maugham’s most famous novel Of Human Bondage. (In the same novel, the poet J. Cronshaw is said to be based on Crowley, where he’s lacking in morality but given a more favorable portrayal) (Kaczynski).
The Birth of Oliver Haddo
The character Oliver Haddo—who was quite obviously based on Crowley—was enough to draw out one of Crowley’s favorite weapons, the pen. His review in Vanity Fair, titled “How to Write A Novel, After W.S. Maugham,” focused on accusations of plagiarism. Much of the review is written in two columns—with sections of The Magician listed next to excerpts allegedly plagiarized. Crowley accuses Maugham of copying from S. L. MacGregor Mathers’ translation of Kabbalah Unveiled, A. E. Waite’s translation of Eliphas Levi’s Rituel et Dogme de la Haute Magie, The Life of Paracelsus by Franz Hartmann, The Blossom and the Fruit by Mabel Collins, and The Island of Dr Moreau by H. G. Wells. Some examples do seem to be legitimate plagiarism; others are a stretch. Crowley later remarked that even though the article was cut down to two-and-a-half pages, “even so it was the most damning exposure of a literary crime that had ever been known.” Topping things off, Crowley wrote the damning piece under the pen name “Oliver Haddo.”
Besides the review, Crowley went on to publish “The Herb Dangerous—(Part II) The Psychology of Hashish” under the Haddo name. And despite any misgivings about his own characterization in the novel, Crowley included The Magician in the fiction section of the complete curriculum of reading officially approved by the A∴ A∴, calling it “An amusing hotchpot of stolen goods.” These are the books A∴ A∴ recommends “as the foundation of a library.”
In his Confessions, Crowley writes:
The Magician was, in fact, an appreciation of my genius such as I had never dreamed of inspiring. It showed me how sublime were my ambitions and reassured me on a point which sometimes worried me—whether my work was worth while in a worldly sense. I had at times feared lest, superbly as my science had satisfied my own soul, it might yet miss the mark of making mankind master of its destiny.
Oliver Haddo vs. Aleister Crowley
Years after the novel was published, Maugham clarified his intentions in a preface: “Though Aleister Crowley served, as I have said, as the model for Oliver Haddo, it is by no means a portrait of him. I made my character more striking in appearance, more sinister and more ruthless than Crowley ever was.”
Haddo is indeed more sinister than even some of the worst rumors about Crowley. But he does share a number of qualities in common with the Great Beast. Both have a stare described as penetrating through you rather than looking at you. Both are highly intelligent and voraciously well-read in the Western occult tradition. Both are magicians who married a young lady, then traveled the world flush with cash. Both men enjoyed strange drugs and associated with people of “ill repute.” Both Crowley and Haddo were exceptional big game hunters, at a time when there was actually sport and danger in the adventure (unlike tourist hunters to Africa today). And both owned estates—Crowley’s the famous Boleskine House in the Scottish Highlands, later owned by Jimmy Page, and Haddo’s a Staffordshire estate, not very creatively called Skene. And it’s easy to assume that this description of Haddo was based on the real-life Crowley as well:
But another strange thing about him was the impossibility of telling whether he was serious. There was a mockery in that queer glance, a sardonic smile upon the mouth, which made you hesitate how to take his outrageous utterances. It was irritating to be uncertain whether, while you were laughing at him, he was not really enjoying an elaborate joke at your expense.
But the similarities between the two men end there. Rather than seducing a young girl like Haddo, Rose was 29 years old when she married Crowley, and he was actually a year younger than his bride. During this time of his life, Crowley was a dashing young man. Only in his later years, much after Maugham’s novel was published, did Crowley become overweight and less attractive. But in the book, Haddo is portrayed as grotesquely obese. Both men are interested in homunculi and Haddo refers to Paracelsus, but they have completely different interpretations of it. Haddo is after nefarious ends using dishonorable means. Crowley, on the other hand, was a Lightworker whose sole purpose in life was union with God, performing his True Will, and helping others to do the same.
Reads ‘More Like a Textbook than a Novel’ on the Occult
It’s always a joy to read a well-researched novel, especially one about the occult. Maugham said he spent countless hours researching at the library of the British Museum for the novel, and the following passage is obviously influenced by Levi’s Rituel et Dogme or the Golden Dawn’s Practicus lecture (later edited into Liber Librae):
It must be plain even to the feeblest intelligence that a man can only command the elementary spirits if he is without fear. A capricious mind can never rule the sylphs, nor a fickle disposition the undines. . . . But if the adept is active, pliant, and strong, the whole world will be at his command. He will pass through the storm and no rain shall fall upon his head. The wind will not displace a single fold of his garment. He will go through fire and not be burned.
There’s ample evidence throughout the book of Maugham’s research: such as references to Hermes Trismegistus, Paracelsus, Albertus Magnus, alchemy, the Grimoire of Honorius, the Malleus Malefikorum, the Pseudomonarchia Daemonorum, and the Clavicula Salomonis. Maugham recounts the story of Levi’s evocation of the spirit of Apollonius of Tyana. Levi is described as wearing a white robe, with a chaplet of vervain leaves entwined about a golden chain upon his head, his sword in one hand and the ritual in the other as he summons Apollonius. In the novel, Dr. Porhoët remarks on the one time he met Levi, “You never saw a man who looked less like a magician. His face beamed with good-nature.”
I don’t want to delve too much into the plot of the novel—I found it an exciting, edge-of-your-seat thriller. However, the many examples of real world occult events led Ron Backer to conclude that parts of the novel seem “more like a textbook than a novel” (104). I found it quite fun to read a good novel peppered with theories of Magick, such as Haddo’s:
Magic is no more than the art of employing consciously invisible means to produce visible effects. Will, love, and imagination are magic powers that everyone possesses; and whoever knows how to develop them to their fullest extent is a magician. Magic has but one dogma, namely, that the seen is the measure of the unseen.
Certainly anyone interested in building up the foundations for a library that Crowley recommended in the curriculum of A∴ A∴ should pick up a copy of The Magician.
Backer, Ron. Classic Horror Films and the Literature That Inspired Them. McFarland (2015).
Crowley, Aleister. The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography. Penguin (1989).
Haddo, Oliver. “How to Write A Novel, After W.S. Maugham.” Vanity Fair, December 1908.
Hastings, Selina. The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography. Arcade Publishing (2012).
Kaczynski, Richard. Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley. North Atlantic Books (2010).
Maugham, W. Somerset. The Magician. Heinemann (1908).
Ramsey, William. Aleister Crowley: A Visual Study. Occult Investigations (2014).
Rintoul, M.C. Dictionary of Real People and Places in Fiction. Routledge (1993).
For most posts on Aleister Crowley and Thelema, please see the archives here.