The Painted Veil

In which I review The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about an unhappily married Englishwoman whose cuckolded husband forces her to move to a remote Chinese village in the middle of a cholera epidemic.

What it’s about: China, the 1920s. Kitty Garstin, a spoiled English socialite, has turned down a number of eligible suitors and is still single at 25, to the disgust of her social climbing mother. Fearful of being upstaged by her younger sister’s successful society marriage, Kitty agrees to marry Walter Fane, a shy and earnest doctor who has fallen in love with her. The newlyweds move to Hong Kong, where Kitty quickly grows bored of British ex-pat society and the serious bookish Walter, and starts an affair with Charles Townsend, a handsome colonial administrator. Kitty suspects that Walter may have discovered the affair, but Townsend assures her he will stand by her, even in the unlikely event that Walter causes a scandal. Some months later, Walter asks Kitty to accompany him to a remote village in mainland China in the grip of a cholera outbreak, and threatens to divorce her if she refuses. Kitty retorts that she has never loved him and wishes to marry Townsend. Walter mocks her, but says he will agree to a divorce if Townsend agrees to divorce his wife and marry Kitty. Townsend refuses to leave his wife. Shocked and humiliated, Kitty realises that Walter knew Townsend would let her down, and agrees to go with him to China. After an arduous overland journey they arrive in Meitan-fu, a community devastated by the epidemic. Walter buries himself in work and ignores Kitty. Bored and angry at her predicament, she strikes up a friendship with their neighbour Waddington, the British district commissioner who has a young Chinese mistress, and a group of French nuns who care for the orphaned village children. The nuns and villagers speak warmly of Walter’s bravery and kindness, but he continues to treat Kitty coldly, admitting that he despises himself for falling in love with her. Eventually their relationship thaws and they agree to be friends. Kitty realises she is pregnant, though she is unsure whether Walter or Townsend is the father. Walter contracts cholera and becomes seriously ill. At his deathbed, Kitty tearfully asks for his forgiveness, but he dies in a delirium. Kitty returns to Hong Kong and stays with the Townsends. Despite her contempt for Townsend, they fall into bed one afternoon. Disgusted with herself, Kitty condemns Townsend and leaves Hong Kong immediately for London. While on board ship she learns that her mother has died. On her return, her father announces that he is taking up a job in the Bahamas, and offers to set Kitty up in a flat in London. Kitty begs her father to let her accompany him, apologising to him for her former cold treatment, and promises to bring up her daughter as an independent woman who will avoid the mistakes she made.

Why it’s a classic: It’s odd to think of Somerset Maugham’s works as being classics, since he’s so seldom read these days. During his lifetime, he was one of the most popular and well-paid writers in the world, with a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter and numerous film adaptations made of his books. The 1934 film version of The Painted Veil, starring Greta Garbo as Kitty, was a huge box office success, and an adaptation of his novel Of Human Bondage, released in the same year, made a star of the young Bette Davis. Maugham’s writing had the rare quality of appealing to a mass commercial market – his writing was plain and straightforward, but emotionally direct – and earning the admiration of critics for his complex psychological portraits of unhappy relationships, and the vagaries and humiliations of romantic love. Many of his stories seem tailor-made for the Hollywood studio system – exotic foreign locations, meaty roles for lead actresses, and tart dialogue that could be lifted straight from the page and into a screenplay. Though he’s rather gone out of fashion now, he had a brief resurgence in the 2000s with film versions of Up At the Villa starring Kristin Scott-Thomas and a handsome remake of The Painted Veil starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.

As a gay man living discreetly in a homophobic society, Maugham was particularly attuned to the plight of those who are consumed and even destroyed by love: his protagonists, both men and women, typically fall in love with the wrong people, don’t have their affections returned, and have their loyalties tested by frequent humiliations. In The Painted Veil, the marital suffering goes both ways: although the story is narrated through Kitty’s eyes, we’re also aware of how intensely Walter suffers too, and it’s never clear whether his move to Meitan-fu is a sadistic punishment for Kitty or a kind of suicide pact to stop his own suffering. In Maugham’s world, love and marriage usually leads to misery, but this brings its own rewards: self-enlightenment, which Kitty finally and painfully achieves.

The Painted Veil‘s caustic view of marriage and frank depiction of adultery appears to have cut too close to the bone in 1920s Hong Kong society. In Maugham’s original text, Walter’s surname was Lane, prompting a Hong Hong couple with the same name to sue his publishers for libel. The name was quickly changed to “Fane”, which has been retained in subsequent additions. This was quickly followed by another libel action by Sir Arthur Fletcher, the then Assistant Colonial Secretary in Hong Kong, who accused Maugham using him the basis for Townsend. Backing down again, Maugham and his publishers changed the story’s setting to Tching-Yen, though later editions restored the references to Hong Kong. The idea of a novel about an affair prompting people to declare in court that they weren’t committing adultery has a salty irony that’s very Maugham-like, and demonstrates just how accurately he’d satirised that social milieu.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet, fashioned into a funeral wreath. When I first created this blog project, Maugham was one of my key targets: a Dead White Male Writer who had once enjoyed huge popularity but who was no longer read and revered, and whose work poses deep problems for a post-feminist post-colonial readership. I’d never read Maugham until now, though I’m very fond of the 2006 film of The Painted Veil, and the 1940 Bette Davis film The Letter, based on one of his short stories. Reading The Painted Veil was, in some ways, a confirmation of everything I’d expected about Maugham and why he was no longer fashionable: his plots are melodramatic and seldom stray out of established moral codes, his privileged white characters drift through colonial landscapes with no awareness of the damage they’re causing, and there’s some period-appropriate but now very jarring racist depictions of non-white characters.

There’s no point trying to skate around Maugham’s racism, especially in The Painted Veil, where Kitty’s view of the “Manchu Princess” (who is never given a name) is a key part of her process of self-discovery. “She seemed more like an idol than a woman,” Kitty notes, when she takes tea with the Princess. “Now she seemed … to have an inkling of something remote and mysterious. Here was the East, immemorial, dark and inscrutable. The beliefs and the ideals of the West seemed crude beside ideals and beliefs of which in this exquisite creature she seemed to catch a fugitive glimpse. Here was a different life, lived on a different plane.” For Maugham’s audience, this may have seemed quite progressive – a white Englishwoman considering a Chinese woman and the culture she represents as a better alternative to her own life. But Kitty – and Maugham – don’t bother to look deeper or see the Princess as anything other than an Orientalist concubine fantasy. Similarly, China exists not on its own terms but as a exotic backdrop for the white protagonists to play out their marital problems. The 2006 film takes pains to correct this, dramatising scenes of white violence against Chinese people, and beefing up the character of Colonel Yu (a silent figure in the book) into an articulate critic of foreign intervention in China. For these reasons, I can understand why Maugham is no longer on the high school English syllabus, and largely not taught except in post-colonial studies classes that expressly unpack this racism.

He’s also a strange author to place historically, which may also explain why his work has fallen by the wayside. His plot twists contain vestiges of the flowery Victorian melodramas of Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and unlike his contemporaries Joyce and Woolf, he wasn’t interested in literary innovation, preferring to stick with omniscient third–person narration and character-driven realist plots. That said, his writing is astonishing, with a plainness and blunt directness that influenced the sleek precise style that we now think of as “good prose”. Orwell and Graham Greene both claimed him as a major influence, and something of Maugham’s gimlet-eyed observation and eye for detail is reflected in their work.

Where Maugham is a true revelation, and why I think he deserves his place among the greats, is for his uncanny understanding of human frailty, and his unsentimental and brutal insight into ugly underside of romantic love. The Painted Veil is catalogue of everything that can go wrong in a marriage – jealousy, disappointment, resentment, humiliation even hatred – and Maugham lays his characters’ toxicity out before us like a series of strangely appetising canapés. “What was it in the human heart that made you despise a man because he loved you?” Kitty ponders, amused but slightly repelled by Walter’s dog-like devotion to her. Eventually, the loathing goes both ways. “I had no illusions about you,” Walter snaps, when he finally confronts Kitty about her affair. “I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew that your aims and ideals were vulgar and common-place. But I loved you. I knew that you were second-rate. But I loved you.” The bad times keep on coming for Kitty, who eventually gains “an inkling into the workings of Walter’s mind. It was like a dark and ominous landscape seen by a flash of lightning and in a moment hidden again by the night. She shuddered at what she saw.” We shudder too when we read of the rage behind his vindictiveness: “His soul was lacerated. It was all make-believe that he had lived on, and when the truth shattered it he thought reality itself was shattered. It was true enough, he would not forgive her because he could not forgive himself.”

This gloves-off approach to marriage as a kind of war feels commonplace today, but for the 1920s, he feels decades ahead of his time. More than once I was reminded of the sadistic parlour games of George and Martha in Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a couple for whom love is inseparable from cruelty and humiliation. Unusually for a man of his time, he never judges Kitty or Walter, and takes their passions seriously, even when he makes it clear just how much suffering they cause each other.

There’s a degree of cruelty in Maugham’s approach – just when you think that Kitty and Walter will be reconciled, Walter gets killed off, and Kitty is denied the satisfaction of having her tearful plea for forgiveness accepted. Walter’s final words are especially tantalising in their ambiguity. “The dog it was that died” is the final line of Goldsmith’s Elegy, a satirical poem in which a man is bitten by a dog and fears being poisoned, though in the end the dog dies rather than him. The meaning of this in the context of Walter’s death has been extensively debated: is Walter berating himself for snapping so viciously at Kitty only to cause his own death? Or is this Walter’s final bitch-slap to Kitty, accusing her of poisoning him with her bad treatment? Kitty isn’t sure and neither are we, which again makes the novel’s sexual politics feel bracingly modern.

But Maugham isn’t finished with us – just when we think Kitty has learned her lesson and will return to Hong Kong a reformed woman, she reverts to type, play-acting the role of heroic wife that’s projected onto her, and falling back into bed with Townsend, a man she reviles. It’s only at this point of self-abasement that she seems to learn something, repeating Walter’s earlier words: “I feel absolutely degraded. You can’t possibly despise me as much as I despise myself.” And so she returns to England, begging her once-reviled father not to desert her: “Oh, father, be kind to me. Let us be kind to one another.” This scene is meant to be the climax of Kitty’s long search for meaning, and while her father accepts her love, it reads just as plausibly as desperation and compromise – Kitty has literally no one left in the world to love, except (one hopes) her unborn child.

Perhaps Kitty will become a noble and virtuous woman, or perhaps she’ll just find new disappointments to replace the old ones. Either way, it’s difficult to think of a novelist of any era who can present “unlikeable” characters so honestly and make their struggles so satisfying to witness. Bravo, Mr Maugham – you may have been a caustic racist old queen, but by God, you understood what it was to be human. To look the ugliness of life in the face and not shy away – or have your readers shy away, either – is more than enough to ensure your place as a Great Dead White Male writer.

Quotable Quote: “But the river, though it flowed so slowly, had still a sense of movement and it gave one a melancholy feeling of the transitoriness of things. Everything passed, and what trace of its passage remained? It seemed to Kitty that they were all, the human race, like the drops of water in that river and they flowed on, each so close to the other and yet so far apart, a nameless flood, to the sea. When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy.

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