The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

Adultery in the time of cholera…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Despite her charm and beauty and although she has had many admirers, Kitty Garstin at the age of twenty-five finds herself still unmarried and close to ending up on the shelf. The situation becomes more urgent when her younger sister makes an excellent match, and Kitty is horrified at the idea of her sister marrying first. So she accepts a proposal from a man she doesn’t love – Walter Fane, a bacteriologist who is about to take up a position in Hong Kong, (called Tching-yen in the book). Once out in the colony, Kitty falls for the easy charm of Charlie Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, and they begin an affair. Kitty thinks this is true love, but for Charlie it’s merely one episode of many – his true love is his wife, despite his infidelity to her. So when Walter finds out about the affair he gives Kitty a choice – divorce him and marry Charlie, or accompany him to an area of China in the midst of a cholera epidemic. It’s then that Kitty discovers Charlie has no intention of leaving his wife, and seems quite comfortable with the idea of Kitty going into China…

Although written in the third person, the book is told from Kitty’s perspective throughout, and so we only get to know as much about the other characters as she knows. This leaves Walter as rather vague, since Kitty never really understands him, not even why he should be in love with someone that he clearly sees, justifiably, as his intellectual inferior. When Walter makes his demand that she accompany him into the cholera zone, she believes that he is hoping that she will die there. And she may be right.

I found Kitty rather annoying at first, empty-headed and shallow. She never really develops a great deal of depth in her personality, but Maugham certainly creates depth in his characterization of her. In some ways it’s a coming of age story, as Kitty’s experiences first show her how empty of any meaning her life has been, and then give her the opportunity to grow. It’s also a study of the position of this class of women in that era, when a good marriage was still the ultimate sign of success and when divorce was still so scandalous that it would thrust a woman out of respectable society. Kitty has been trained and educated only to be ornamental and charming, so one can hardly blame her for her shallowness. Her role as a wife is to support her husband and to have children. Perhaps if Kitty had had a child she may not have indulged in an affair, but being the wife of a man obsessed by his work and having servants to do all the tedious work around the home leaves Kitty, and all colonial women to an extent, with very little to fill their empty days.

Book 6 of 80

First published in 1925, the book is of its age when it comes to colonial attitudes. Some of the language that Maugham uses in describing the Chinese characters and culture certainly seems offensive to modern eyes, more so, I felt, than in some other colonial writing from the same era. However, it does give an idea of how foreign and unsettling everything seems to Kitty, and as the story unfolds she shows at least a little desire to understand more about the people she finds herself living amongst. But mostly China is relegated to a beautiful and exotic background against which a very English story plays out.

There’s also a religious aspect to the book that rather puzzled me. Kitty has no belief in a God, but once in the cholera zone she begins to help out at the local convent which is caring for both cholera patients and orphans, and in her conversations with the nuns there’s a suggestion that she comes to feel that her lack of faith is part of the emptiness inside her. Yet there’s no suggestion of her converting to a life of religion. I couldn’t quite make out what Maugham was trying to say about religion – he seemed to admire the dedication and faith of the nuns without accepting the truth of their beliefs. I googled him afterwards and actually think that maybe this is a reflection of his own ambivalence – he seems to have been an atheist or agnostic of the kind who struggles with and perhaps regrets his lack of faith.

W Somerset Maugham

I loved the book for the quality of the writing and the characterization, and particularly appreciated the way he developed Kitty gradually and realistically over the course of the story. But I had two minor quibbles that just stopped it from being a five-star read for me. The first is entirely subjective and isn’t a criticism of the book – I had seen and thoroughly enjoyed the film before I read it and that unfortunately meant that I knew how the story was going to play out, which took away any suspense and reduced my emotional response. My second criticism is more objective – I hated the way it ended, the last few pages being filled with a kind of pretentious, breathless hyper-emotionalism that didn’t seem to match the rest of the book, nor tie in with Kitty’s character as we had come to know her. Again, it had the same kind of jumbled religious undertones that I felt had been confusing throughout, so perhaps Maugham was trying to resolve Kitty’s feelings about faith in some way in the end. But if so, I’m afraid it didn’t work for me.

Despite that, overall I found it interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable, and very well written, and it has certainly left me keen to read more of his work. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.

Book 6 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for June. An excellent choice, People – well done!

Amazon UK Link

54 thoughts on “The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

    • I’m glad you said that, Silvia! It’s a few years since I watched the film and I can’t remember how it ended, but while I was reading the book I was thinking that those last few pages didn’t ring a bell at all from the film and I wondered if the ending had been changed. I must try to watch it again!

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        • Thanks for that – an excellent comparison that shows I’ve forgotten more about the film than I thought! Maybe it was because I was subconsciously expecting the book to end like the film that I found the last few pages so jarring? As the article suggests though, I do think the book gives a more realistic portrayal – Kitty grows over time, but she’s still fundamentally the same person in the end, just more mature. And the vagueness of Walter’s characterisation in the book reflects Kitty’s inability to understand him very well,

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          • Oh, just a note for anyone reading this – the article in the link is very interesting but full of spoilers so don’t read it if you haven’t read the book and seen the film!

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  1. This is one of my favourites, so I’m glad you enjoyed it even if the ending didn’t work for you! I agree about the colonial/orientalist language being bad even in the context of the time, though if I recall correctly we only really hear it from Kitty and other superficial or naive characters, and she seems to gradually shed it over the course of the novel – I thought her gradual development of seeing the Chinese characters as full, three-dimensional people was part of her character arc. (But to be fair it’s a few years now since I read it). I haven’t seen the film yet, so thank you for reminding me that I want to!

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    • You’re right that most of the outdated language was from Kitty’s perspective but not always in dialogue, and because it’s third person it seemed like it was Maugham’s word choice rather than Kitty’s if you see what I mean. I was a little sorry that China was so much in the background, but it worked in context of the story and would have been a much longer, less focused book if he’d rambled on about Chinese culture, I suppose. The film is great, though Silvia has just reminded me that it’s different from the book in some aspects – it’s years since I watched it, so can’t remember what they’ve changed. But certainly all the important plot points were there, hence my feeling of familiarity when reading. I’m very keen to read more of his stuff now! 😀

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  2. I read this book years ago and loved it and then watched the film and loved that too – such beautiful scenery. I’ve read two of his other books, Cakes and Ale and The Moon and Sixpence. I’ve been meaning to read more of his books and also have Of Human Bondage on my TBR shelves. It’s the length (720 pages) that makes me hesitate – silly I know, but then there are just so many books I want to read!

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    • It’s great when a film adaptation works so well. I loved the film too, though it’s a good few years now since I watched it. Must try to watch it again while the book is fresh in my mind! Goodness, I’m glad you told me about the length of Of Human Bondage – I was just about to add it to my wishlist, but I’ll go for one of his shorter ones first, I think! I know exactly what you mean about long books – they can be great, but they eat up so much reading time. Aren’t we odd? 😂

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  3. I felt quite sorry for Kitty as I read your review. You’ve explained why she felt she had to marry, but why a bacteriologist would have been interested in her I cannot imagine! Kitty may have been pretty and charming but what on earth would they have talked about?
    I haven’t watched this film or read the book so have added both to my list.

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    • I found her too annoying at the beginning to feel sorry for her, but I developed more sympathy for her as the book went on and liked her better by the end. I couldn’t understand what Walter saw in her – it seemed to me like sexual infatuation rather than love, though whether that’s what Maugham intended I don’t know! I think you’ll enjoy this one, and the film is beautiful – wonderful scenery!

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  4. FF, I read this in college and don’t remember much about it. After going thru your review, don’t think will re-read it but it does make me revisit Maugham’s short stories which are absolutely superb.

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    • I loved it and it was just a pity I’d seen the film so knew the main points of the story. Though the film is great too, with loads of wonderful scenery! But I’m really looking forward to investigating him further now! 😀

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  5. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one, FictionFan. It’s good to know The People served you well. It really does work best when characters grow authentically throughout the course of a novel. And I think you make an important point in saying that Kitty’s being somewhat shallow and uninteresting is as much a product of the way society expects her to be as anything else. It’s a commentary on the times, in that sense, I think. At any rate, I’m happy to hear you liked this one!

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    • The People have been doing very well recently, with only the occasional blip! 😉 Yes, I thought the characterisation of Kitty was excellently done, and quite sympathetic for a male writer of this era – in that sense, it reminded me a bit of Thomas Hardy, though the style is very different. Some people apparently call this a feminist book – not sure I’d go that far, but certainly he seemed to be on Kitty’s side despite her flaws…

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    • Haha, no, you should take the credit whatever way you voted – that’s democracy! 😉 The People have been doing well recently, with just an occasional blip… 😀

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    • That’s great to hear, Nish, since I actually have a couple of collections of his short stories on audiobook that I’ve picked up randomly in sales over the years – I’m really looking forward to listening to them now! I have one scheduled for very soon – Rain and Other Stories – and it’s one of my favourite narrators too, so it sounds like I’m in for a treat! 😀 🎧

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  6. Hmmm…. now I feel conflicted about this one and wonder if Kitty would get on my nerves? Still, you make it sound appealing enough that I’ll keep it on my wishlist.

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    • She did annoy me in the beginning but I think she was meant to, and I found myself more sympathetic towards her as it went on – by the end I quite liked her! If you do read it, I hope you enjoy it – and remember the film’s great too… 😀

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  7. I’m really glad you enjoyed this, I agree with you entirely especially about Kitty, it’s clever the way he gets us to sympathise with her and yet not change her. I had forgotten the ending which probably means that I just skipped over it!

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    • Yes, at the beginning I found Kitty really annoying but I grew to sympathise and even quite like her by the end. The way he changes her is really understated but very credible, I thought. Haha, those last pages were very strange – out of synch with the rest of the book. Or maybe it’s just me… 😀

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  8. I enjoyed this book and I think it probably helped that I hadn’t seen the film so the story was completely new to me. I can’t really remember the ending, but it’s been about ten years since I read it, I think. I was intending to read more books by Maugham but still haven’t got round to it!

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    • I usually try to read the book first but I don’t think I knew there was a book when I watched the film of this one. It was a pity – like having lots of spoilers in my head! But I did enjoy the book very much nevertheless and, like you, fully intend to read more of his stuff… but will I? Time will tell… 😂

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    • Coincidentally I have a couple of collections of his short stories on audiobook that I’ve picked up fairly randomly in sales over the years, and after people’s comments I’m really looking forward to them now. I’ll be listening to Rain and Other Stories very soon so I shall report back! 😀

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  9. I don’t think this would appeal to me. Kitty just doesn’t sound like someone whose head I want to live in for the length of a book. But I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I enjoyed reading your review.

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    • She did annoy me in the beginning but I think she was meant to, and I grew more sympathetic as it went on. By the end I quite liked her! The People have been doing well recently – another excellent winner! 😀

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  10. When I was 18 years old, I relocated from Australia to Paris to work as an au pair. The only books in English in the house were the complete collected works of Oscar Wilde and the complete collected works of W Somerset Maugham. I’ve loved both authors ever since, despite their flaws. I can’t remember reading The Painted Veil but I loved the movie. The short story ‘Rain’ by Somerset Maugham is one of my all-time favourites. Thanks for this review, FF.

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    • Ha, somehow I can imagine reading Oscar in Paris, but Maugham seems so English! This was my first Maugham but I’m really looking forward to reading more now, and as it happens I have a couple of collections of his short stories on audiobook that I’d picked up randomly in sales over the years and then left lingering. I’ve scheduled Rain and Other Stories for very soon, so I’m glad to get your recommendation for it! It’s also got one of my favourite narrators, so it sounds like I’m in for a treat. 😀 🎧

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  11. The idea of following a bacteriologist anywhere, especially into an epidemic sounds quite frightening, although I suppose she didn’t have much choice at that point. And what’s with this man who loves his wife but cheats on her all the time? Ugh. Too bad the ending didn’t work, that always tends to cast a shadow over everything that came before it in my mind…

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    • Especially since there was no cure for cholera at the time! The men didn’t come out well – her husband risking her life because he was mad at her, and her lover turning out to be a serial philanderer! She clearly did not have good judgement when it came to men!

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  12. I enjoyed this very much as well, I don’t remember the more religious threads too clearly, but I was surprised that one was able to understand and even feel a little for Kitty even though she doesn’t start out as particularly likeable

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