One of my favourite shows on TV now is the costume drama "Mr Selfridge," based on the larger-than-life Harry Selfridge who founded the huge London department store Selfridges. Selfridge introduced several great innovations, including placing the cosmetics section on the first floor and spectacular store windows. One of these was a tribute to ballerina Anna Pavlova. Unfortunately, even though the store-owner was married with four children, he enjoyed the company of women and gambling rather too much! Syrie Wellcome (later Maugham) was one of his many girlfriends.
Syrie Barnardo, born on July 10, 1879, had an extremely unhappy childhood. Her father, who started Dr Barnado's homes for slum children in London's East End, kept strict control over the household. He banned smoking and alcohol in his house, and he didn't even let the children go to the theatre. He also liked them to read the Bible and 'good books'.
The family home was quite luxurious, however, and the children went to expensive schools, so it wasn't all bad. Syrie, who was a striking young woman, wanted to escape her restricted life, This probably caused her to marry the wealthy and much older pharmacist and businessman, Henry Wellcome when she was only 21.
There are many different stories about the marriage. According to one, he beat her and he was generally very cruel, even making her ride camels in the Egyptian heat when she was pregnant. He needed to travel for his business and Syrie often got sick. They did have a son, who was probably dyslexic and physically delicate. I have read that Henry Wellcome was kind to the son, supporting his decision to become a farmer. This is hard to reconcile with the accusation of the beatings.
The marriage broke up after ten years but Wellcome didn't want a divorce. Syrie could continue to mix in society in spite of the scandal because she was chaperoned by her widowed mother. Sophisticated and intelligent, she soon caught the eye of Harry Selfridge. He even bought her a lovely house in Regent's Park and paid to have it lavishly furnished. She lived there with her mother.
Some people apparently thought that Syrie wasn't all that keen on Harry. However, her friend Rebecca West wrote that it was 'certainly a love affair. But they were only lovers when it suited'.
Syrie eventually obtained a divorce from Wellcome because she was pregnant to gay writer, Somerset Maugham! She had a miscarriage but she later married him, two years after having his daughter Liza, named after the character in Maugham's novel, Liza of Lambeth.
Poor Syrie had no luck with the men, and Maugham was rotten to her and Liza, because he concentrated on his gay lovers. She is still famous, however, because she began her own extremely fashionable interior design business frequented by clients, such as the Duchess of Windsor, and popularised the 'all-white' room.