The Painted Veil – W. Somerset Maugham
It just shows how far Somerset Maugham has slipped from public consciousness that in the discussion about plague literature that this year’s Covid-19 pandemic sparked off, The Painted Veil received nary a mention. Published in book form in 1925 after being serialised in America in Cosmopolitan and in Britain in Nash’s Magazine, it is set, in part, in a Chinese colony stricken by cholera.
As a book it had a bit of a troubled start. The two protagonists are named Lane but their surname was changed to Fane when a Hong Kong-based couple named Lane successfully sued the publishers to the tune of £250. The colony was originally Hong Kong but had to be changed to the fictional Tching-Yen after an Assistant Colonial Secretary by the name of A G M Fletcher threatened legal action. You can see his point as the Assistant Colonial Secretary in the story, Charles Townsend, acts like a cad. Over the years the surname Lane has survived the course, but later editions of the book reverted to Hong Kong, as indeed my edition did.
The novel’s title comes from the opening line of a sonnet by Shelley, “lift not the painted veil which those who live/ call life” and is apposite. It is a tale of love, betrayal, revenge and, ultimately, redemption – all human life is contained within its pages. None of the characters are particularly likeable, they are all deeply flawed, but a book populated with anti-heroes is none the worse for that.
Kitty is a flighty young lady, who, at the age of 25, is in danger of being left on the shelf. She feels her looks are going and, influenced by her younger sister’s betrothal, accepts the rather odd proposal from the rather aloof Walter Fane, a bacteriologist who works in Hong Kong. The proposal gives a sense of the way the relationship is likely to go; “Kitty – I think I like you very much. You must give me time to get used to you. Walter – then it’s yes? Kitty – I suppose so”.
Kitty realises that she does not and cannot ever love Walter and with time on her hands stuck out in Hong Kong has an affair with the married and dashing Charles Townsend. Walter was under no misapprehension that his wife loved him, but he expected her to be loyal or, at least, not to deceive him. As he says himself, “I never expected you to love me, I didn’t see any reason that you should, I never thought myself very loveable. … What most husbands expected as a right I was prepared to receive as a favour”.
It was this deception that hurt him and when Walter found out he gives her an ultimatum, either Charles has to divorce and marry her tout suite or she has to accompany Walter to the cholera-infested Tching-Yen, almost certainly a death sentence. Walter knows what kind of man Charles is and when her beau betrays her, Kitty feels she has no alternative but to accompany her husband.
Certain that Walter is using the cholera outbreak as a way of killing her, Kitty leads a listless sort of existence until she visits and works in a convent and finds a path, of sorts, to a form of redemption. Tragedy strikes, but not perhaps the one that the reader expected, enabling Kitty to find peace.
The writing, as you come to expect from Maugham, is beautiful with exquisitely formed phrases and sharply observed characterisation. The narrative is written from Kitty’s perspective and Maugham gets under her skin and feels her soul, making her into a more sympathetic character. Walter’s character, too, is finely drawn and it is possible to feel some sympathy for someone who is the archetypical cold fish.
If you haven’t had enough of plagues by now, this book is well worth a read.