The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

“What was it in the human heart that made you despise a man because he loved you?”

Several events led me back to W. Somerset Maugham, a great favourite, and in my opinion much underappreciated. I selected The Painted Veil to reread–in some ways a very strange unfathomable novel that tells the tale of a thoughtless pretty, self-centred frivolous woman who commits an act that condemns her in society, and who then undergoes some form of redemption. I use the term Redemption a little awkwardly as this usually have some sort of religious connotation, and while religion does have a place here in the novel, Maugham doesn’t use religion in any traditional sense, but more of that later.

The Painted Veil (and yes it’s been made into a film) is the story of Kitty Fane–or Kitty Farstin as she is named before her marriage. Kitty is the eldest of two daughters, the product of Bernard Garstin and his insufferable social-climbing wife, “a hard, cruel, managing, ambitious, parsimonious, and stupid woman.” Mrs Garstin, the daughter of a Liverpool solicitor,  married her husband, not for love, but because she thought he would “go far. He hadn’t.” Mrs Garstin’s bitter disappointment and frustrated ambition at her lack of social position festers and then contaminates her relationships with her two daughters. The youngest, Doris, is plain, but Kitty is a beauty, and it’s on Kitty that Mrs. Garstin’s ambitions and energies rest.

Her first season passed without the perfect suitor presenting himself, and the second also; but she was young and could afford to wait. Mrs Garstin told her friends that she thought it a pity for a girl to marry till she was twenty-one. But a third year passed and then a fourth. Two or three of her old admirers proposed again, but they were still penniless; one or two boys younger than herself proposed.; a retired Indian Civilian, a K.C.I. E., did the same: he was fifty-three. Kitty still danced a great deal, she went to Wimbledon and Lord’s and Ascot and Henley; she was throughly enjoying herself; but still no-one whose position and income were satisfactory asked her to marry him. Mrs Garstin began to grow uneasy. She noticed that Kitty was beginning to attract men of forty and over. She reminded her that she would not be any longer so pretty in a year or two and that young girls were coming out all the time. Mrs Garstin did not mince words in the domestic circle and she warned her daughter tartly that she would miss her market.

With the prospect of an ever-diminishing shelf life, combined with the embarrassing reality that her plain sister makes a brilliant match, Kitty in a “panic” accepts the first halfway suitable proposal that comes along. The proposal is made by the very quiet, very shy Walter Fane, a bacteriologist doctor who’s stationed in Hong Kong.  And so Kitty finds herself, in a bit of a daze, living in Hong Kong with a man she doesn’t know, doesn’t understand and doesn’t particularly like.  

Stuck in a mis-matched marriage, Kitty falls madly in love with a married man, an ambitious but gregarious official, who seems to be more her speed. Leaving some blanks here, I’ll just say that Walter whisks Kitty off to a remote rural area–to the middle of a cholera epidemic.  

One of Maugham’s frequent themes is relationships between unequals. In Of Human Bondage, the inequality is class, and in The Painted Veil, one of Maugham’s most complex novels, the inequity between Walter and Kitty is morality; they are simply two very different people. Kitty Fane isn’t a bad person, but she is shallow, thoughtless, and frivolous. Walter is a man of great integrity, capable of deep, lasting emotions, and theirs is a hellish match as they are destined to make one another deeply unhappy. Here’s Walter arguing with Kitty:

“I had no illusions about you,” he said. “I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew your aims and ideals were vulgar and commonplace. But I loved you. It’s comic when I think how hard I tried to be amused by the things that amused you and how anxious I was to hide from you that I wasn’t ignorant and vulgar and scandal-mongering and stupid. I knew how frightened you were of intelligence and I did everything I could to make you think me as big a fool as the rest of the men you knew. I knew you’d only married me for convenience. I loved you so much, I didn’t care.”

A simpler story would utilise religion as a source of redemption, and while Kitty finds herself in proximity to religion through the convent in the cholera-stricken city, Maugham does not take the easy way out by granting Kitty some sort of succor in religious redemption. Kitty admits to Waddington, a strange character who often acts as Kitty’s moral sounding board:

I’m looking for something and I don’t know what it is. But I know that it’s very important for me to know it, and if I did it would make all the difference. Perhaps the nuns know it; when I’m with them I feel that they hold a secret which they will not share with me.

Kitty’s redemption comes finally, not through religion, but from an ultimate realisation of the sort of person she is. She acknowledges her human weaknesses and knows that she must struggle against these characteristics all her life.  Her last visit to Hong Kong yields a final humiliation, and she is forced to acknowledge something she’s rather forget.

My Penguin copy includes a preface from Maugham in which he explains that at age 20 he was on a trip to Florence when he became struck with a line from Dante’s Inferno. He states that “this is the only novel I have written in which I started from a story rather from a character.” He goes on to explain that “the characters were chosen to fit the story I gradually evolved.” Due to legal issues, he changed Hong Kong to “an imaginary colony of Tching-yen,” but for this edition, it’s altered back to Hong Kong. Published in 1925.

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18 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Maugham, W. Somerset

18 responses to “The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

  1. Great review Guy … I agree with you that Maugham is under appreciated, by the literati at least. He’s certainly not under appreciated by filmmakers. I remember checking him out a few years ago and being astonished by how many of his stories and novels have been made into film, this one included as you say.
    PS Love your tags: “miserable marriages”. Wonderful.

  2. Thanks, Gummie. Have you seen The Beachcomber?

  3. I liked the movie of this.
    I’ve read a few Maugham novels and short stories and always liked them so much. I haven’t read this one yet. I’m planning to read The Razor’s Edge or Of Human Bondage next but I would really like to read this once the images from the movie are not sticking in my head anymore.
    Maugham and Zweig are really comparable as they are far less appreciated in their respective countries than abroad.

  4. kimbofo

    This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. It has been recommended to me by lots of different people and it regularly pops up on blogs. Your review has reminded me to read it sooner rather than later.

  5. leroyhunter

    Sounds great Guy. I’m already sold on more Maugham, the only question is where to start. For some reason Cakes and Ale appeals most right now.

  6. It sounds great, I’ll read it too as I really like W. Somerset Maugham. (another writer’s name I can’t pronounce, btw)

    Is Kitty an Undine who would improve with years? Her husband reminds me of Ralph.

  7. Interesting review. Maugham, as I may have said before, was a great favourite of my paternal grandfather’s. He’s gone very out of fashion, as writers do sometimes, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he comes back into vogue. If not he’ll be one of those writers a few people from each generation discover anew, each time to delight that such should exist yet not be better known.

    The bit about how this is the only one where story came before character in terms of the novel’s concept is interesting. Did you find any reflection of that in the text Guy? Did it seem more story driven than usual for Maugham?

    • I had a literature professor once who argued that it was a mistake to start a story with an ‘idea’, and that it was always possible to tell such stories as they were structurally weaker in comparison. I think he was generally right, but The Painted Veil may very well be an exception–or perhaps it’s that it started with an idea but Maugham expanded it before picking up a pen.

      Can’t spoil it for you but towards the end, the book takes a really surprising turn when it comes to Kitty. Maugham could have taken the easy way out with her character but didn’t. One example of that, of course, is not allowing this character to have a religious conversion–it’s toyed with but it’s not for Kitty who is too flesh and blood for that.

  8. I too am an admirer of Maugham (especially the short stories, and Cakes and Ale) but I haven’t read this one. Having read your review of it, I’ll certainly seek it out: it sounds fascinating.

  9. I think you’d appreciate the subtleties of the story. I have a 50 story collection by Maugham next to the bed

  10. Oddly enough, one of my favourites from my teens (rather than the more cheery Cakes and Ale). Was obviously such a sunny soul even back then! I did find Kitty’s punishment rather harsh – I like the way you portray her as a product of her parents and upbringing as well.
    And I agree that Maugham is insufficiently appreciated nowadays. A bit like Zweig, I suppose: bestseller in his lifetime and then a bit forgotten. I haven’t reread him in recent years, but back then my favourites were ‘Moon and Sixpence’ and ‘Up at the Villa’. He’s great as a travel writer too.

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