Updated on August 5, 2015
16. ‘The Painted Veil’ by W. Somerset Maugham
[CONTAINS SPOILERS. NO, REALLY, LOTS OF SPOILERS]
A man and a woman in a locked bedroom, with the door handle slowly turning. They are Charles Townsend and Kitty Fane, and they have been having an affair. Kitty is sure it is her husband, Walter, on the other side of the door. The opening to this book is excellent – Maugham really racks up the tension right at the outset. From there the story becomes more conventional, following Kitty as she changes from a flighty girl to … well, that’s another issue. What Kitty actually becomes did not really satisfy me.
This book is very much of its time – it was first published in 1925 – especially in its approach to foreigners. Kitty is an expat living in China and some of the passages describing Chinese people (and especially children) are basically offensive to a modern reader, as she likens them more to animals than humans. This isn’t necessarily something to hold against the book: it will inevitably shock a modern audience with its perspective on imperialism, but we have to remember that it was written in a very different time.
I found the book eminently quotable and, in places, quite beautifully written. The characters inwardly and outwardly philosophise, and it’s interesting to see the Western characters absorbing Eastern ideas. The story follows Kitty as her husband takes her to a cholera-ridden town as vengeance for her affair, but during her time there she matures incredibly. She begins to find out more about the man she married on a whim, and by the end she has come to respect him and regret the mistake she made with Charles.
When Kitty’s husband eventually dies of cholera and she returns to the city she meets Charles Townsend again. At last the scene that I had been waiting for takes place – she tells him what she thinks of him, that he had used her, and that he didn’t respect her because he had let Walter take her to almost certain death, rather than suffer a scandal from the affair. The fact that, shortly after her grand speech, she ends up collapsing helplessly into his arms again almost made me stop reading.
I’m not sure what Maugham was trying to achieve. Clearly he was trying to deliberately confound his expectations, but to what end? To show that she was essentially a weak woman? To make some more general point about the tragic circularity of human behaviour? Whatever his overarching point was, I found the end dissatisfying. Usually I enjoy books that mess with the reader, but I didn’t think Maugham really pulled it off with sufficient poignancy or meaning.
The ‘glimmer of hope’ that is offered is Kitty’s pregnancy. She is carrying Charles’ child and decides to raise the child without him or her husband, bringing her own daughter up not to make the same mistakes she made. I couldn’t help but feel this was a cop out, and I found myself not caring what would happen to Kitty after the book ended.
This is worth reading for the language and the moments of beautifully eloquent introspection, but I felt the ending let the rest of the book down.
“I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos.”
Two summers ago I went to China and, at the end of the month-long trip, I ended up in Guilin and Yangshuo. This area of China has the stunning steep mountains of a karst landscape, and our guide told us that there was a film set there called ‘The Painted Veil’. She said it was about a British couple, travelling in Italy (Venice – another reason for me to want to read it) and southern China. Back in England I watched the film, and when I found the book in the auction I was very excited to read it!
The book is interesting for another reason. It is published by what I believe to be a German company, and the cover reads: “Not to be introduced into the British Empire and the USA”. After a bit of research I found out that there was some scandal surrounding the book. Originally the city of Tching-Yen named in the story was called Hong Kong, and the Fanes were called the Lanes, but this was a little too close to reality for some. Some real life Lanes successfully sued the publisher, and Hong Kong’s real Assistant Colonial Secretary (the post occupied by the undesirable Charles Townsend in the novel) also threatened legal action. In later editions the names were changed, and Maugham wrote a scathing introduction, stating that none of the characters were based on real people. It felt quite exciting to be reading a book in England that once would not have been allowed into the country!
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?