Despite the attempts of her mother to arrange a good marriage for her, Kitty Garstin is in no hurry to find a husband. She’s too busy enjoying herself at parties and dances, and it’s only when she’s still unmarried at the age of twenty-five and discovers that her younger sister has become engaged to a baronet that she begins to panic. She agrees to marry Walter Fane, a bacteriologist, and moves to Hong Kong with him. Walter is shy, clever and serious and to the pretty, frivolous Kitty, he seems very cold and aloof. Although he is in love with her, she doesn’t love him in return and soon begins an affair with the charming, charismatic Assistant Colonial Secretary, Charles Townsend.
Eventually Walter learns the truth about Kitty and Charles and confronts Kitty with an ultimatum. She can either accompany him into the interior of China where he has volunteered to deal with a cholera epidemic, or he will allow her to divorce him – but only if Charles agrees to divorce his wife and immediately marry Kitty. When Kitty goes to discuss the situation with Charles, she is cruelly disillusioned by her lover and is left with no other option than to travel to Mei-tan-fu with Walter. Kitty is convinced that Walter is taking her there in the hope that she will die, but it’s here in this remote cholera-ridden city that Kitty finally begins to grow as a person and to make some discoveries about both herself and her husband.
This book was such a surprise. I think I must have formed a preconceived idea that I wouldn’t like Somerset Maugham without ever having tried any of his books or knowing anything about him, because I really didn’t expect to love this as much as I did. I’m so pleased to find that I was wrong! The Painted Veil is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I found Maugham’s writing much easier to read than I had thought it might be, but also filled with beauty, poignancy and emotion.
This is quite a short novel but both main characters have a lot of depth and complexity. I disliked Kitty at first – she’s selfish, spoiled and immature – but the fact that she is so flawed and makes such terrible mistakes is what makes her so human. Kitty is changed by her experiences in Mei-tan-fu and we see her mature and gain in wisdom and insight. By the end of the book, I still didn’t like her but I had a better understanding of her and I wanted her to be happy. I had more sympathy for Walter, but because we are viewing him through Kitty’s eyes, we don’t really have a chance to see the other side of his personality that we hear about – when the nuns in the convent tell Kitty how much they admire him, for example, and how tender and loving he can be with the orphaned babies there. Kitty barely knows or understands her husband at all and when she finally begins to do so, we are made to wonder whether it’s going to be too late.
There aren’t a lot of long, descriptive passages in this book but 1920s China is still portrayed beautifully and I loved this description of Kitty watching the rooftops emerging from the mist on her first morning in Mei-tan-fu:
But suddenly from that white cloud a tall, grim, and massive bastion emerged. It seemed not merely to be made visible by the all-discovering sun but rather to rise out of nothing at the touch of a magic wand. It towered, the stronghold of a cruel and barbaric race, over the river. But the magician who built worked swiftly and now a fragment of coloured wall crowned the bastion; in a moment, out of the mist, looming vastly and touched here and there by a yellow ray of sun, there was seen a cluster of green and yellow roofs. Huge they seemed and you could make out no pattern; the order, if order there was, escaped you; wayward and extravagant, but of an unimaginable richness. This was no fortress, nor a temple, but the magic palace of some emperor of the gods where no man might enter. It was too airy, fantastic, and unsubstantial to be the work of human hands; it was the fabric of a dream.
I read The Painted Veil for Katherine’s Turn of the Century Salon. This book was published in 1925 and with its portrayal of society in 1920s colonial Hong Kong and an era when many girls were still raised with the sole aim of making a good marriage, this was an ideal choice for the Salon. If you read it I would also recommend reading Shelley’s sonnet Lift Not The Painted Veil and Oliver Goldsmith’s An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.