His lips moved. He did not look at her. His eyes stared unseeing at the whitewashed wall. She leaned over him so that she might hear. But he spoke quite clearly. “The dog it was that died.” – from The Painted Veil –
Kitty Garstin, a spoiled young debutante living in 1920’s England, makes the choice to marry Walter Fane so that she is not left without a husband. Walter is smitten with Kitty, in fact, loves her fiercely. But Walter’s work as a bacteriologist and his quiet demeanor leave Kitty indifferent. The couple move to Hong Kong where within weeks, Kitty meets the much older and charming Charlie Townsend. The fact that both Kitty and Charlie are married, does not dampen their attraction to each other…and very quickly they begin a passionate affair. When Walter discovers the affair, he confronts Kitty and threatens to divorce her (something which would leave Kitty disgraced) unless she agrees to travel with him to the cholera-ridden town of Mei-tan-fu.
British author W. Somerset Maugham published this novel in 1925, but it was first serialized in Cosmopolitan beginning in November 1924. The novel was adapted for the screen in 1937, 1954 and 2006.
Maugham attempted to demonstrate personal growth in the character of Kitty – from a frivolous and shallow young woman to someone with an awakened conscience and a more open heart. I’m not quite sure that was accomplished. Kitty is not a terribly likeable character and I turned the final page wondering how much she had truly changed. Although life in Mei-tan-fu forces her to grow up, she remained a character who was rather self-centered.
I read this book for a book club, and the group was split as to whether or not Kitty ends up being a changed person. You will have to read the book yourself to decide!
Maugham captures the flavor of Hong Kong in the mid-1920s. As with many classic works, the women in the book are not presented in a very positive way. Kitty is flighty and looks to men to solve all her problems and Dorothy Townsend seems to be just fine with her husband cavorting with younger women as long as he never leaves her. The only female character in the book who I felt portrayed inner strength, was the Mother Superior at the convent.
The Painted Veil gives readers a look at the prejudices of the time – Kitty sees the Chinese children as “hardly human” and is shocked when she learns that one of the gentleman in the settlement lives with a Manchu woman.
Somerset Maugham achieved great popular success, ultimately penning numerous plays and novels, along with several short stories. He is perhaps best known for his novel Of Human Bondage (first published in 1915).
Despite my criticisms of the characters in The Painted Veil, I did appreciate this novel as a piece of classic literature. It is a short work (less than 250 pages) which I read in just a few days. Readers who enjoy classic books will want to give this one a try.