‘The Painted Veil’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 186 pages; 2009.

I do love a good W. Somerset Maugham novel and The Painted Veil, first published in 1925, is regarded as one of his best.

The story is largely set in Hong Kong, before shifting to mainland China, and centres on a troubled marriage between two young Brits who are vastly different in personality, temperament and upbringing.

Walter Fane is a bacteriologist who is tightly buttoned up, the type of man who can’t really talk to others much less express his emotions, but he’s in love with his new wife, Kitty, even though he never quite tells her of his feelings.

Kitty Garstin, meanwhile, is extroverted but shallow and self-centred. She rushes into marriage with Walter, not because she’s in love, but because she’s desperate to escape her domineering mother and fears being “left on the shelf”, aged 25. She’s already turned down dozens of marriage proposals and is worried her younger sister will upstage her by marrying first.

The marriage between Walter and Kitty, of course, is a mistake. In Hong Kong, where Walter has been stationed, cracks begin to appear in their relationship, and Kitty begins an affair with Charles Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, who is married with two young children.

It is when Walter discovers his wife’s adultery that the novel comes into its own.

Unexpected reaction

Walter does not react the way one would expect. While outwardly dull and seeming to lack emotion, it appears that he is an astute observer of human behaviour and knows how to manipulate people to his own ends.

He issues an ultimatum: if Kitty can get Charles to divorce his wife, then she is free to remarry; or she can come with Walter to mainland China where he has agreed to take charge of a cholera outbreak, putting both their lives at risk.

Of course, Charles turns out to be a coward and won’t divorce his wife, leaving Kitty with only one option: to accompany the husband she has wronged into a potential deathtrap.

Portrait of a cruel marriage

The Painted Veil is a rather good example of Maugham’s penchant for writing about cruel marriages and people tortured by love (or an absence of love). His technique is rather old-fashioned. The narrative, for instance, is completely linear, which is refreshing when you read a diet of contemporary fiction that seems preoccupied with flashbacks and multiple storylines. And his prose, as always, is simple, elegant and clear.

I got completely absorbed by this portrait of a mismatched marriage and loved the soap opera-ish element to it and the ways in which the characters behaved so abominably, often against expectation. For instance, who would think dull, strait-laced Walter would have it in him to plot his wife’s murder by forcing her to live in a town consumed by a cholera epidemic?

The ending is a bit of a let down (the 2006 movie adaptation starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts is much better), but on the whole The Painted Veil is a compelling tale of love, betrayal, revenge and redemption and confirms Maugham as one of my favourite writers.

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26 thoughts on “‘The Painted Veil’ by W. Somerset Maugham

  1. Maugham is one of those authors whom I haven’t read any of their works but I’m determined to read something soon (others include Thomas Bernhard & John Cowper Powys). With Maugham I’ll either start with some short stories or plunge in to Of Human Bondage. I saw the film of The Painted Veil a few years ago and really liked it. Doesn’t the book plunge straight in to Walter discovering the adultery?

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    • Oh, please read Of Human Bondage! I so loved that book. Presents the hardships of life prior to the welfare state and gives a good background to Maugham’s own struggles and explains a lot of his bitterness and rejection of religion etc.

      And yes, you’re right, the book does open with Walter discovering the affair and about 5 chapters in it moves back to how the pair got married in the first place, so I guess the narrative’s not as linear as I made it out to be.

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  2. I’ve never read any Maugham, is that terrible? Your mention of his clear prose is most definitely appealing. And I did like the film version of this, so it should be a good place for me to start!

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    • Not terrible at all. I’ve never read Dickens or Austen! Life’s too short to read everything you’re “supposed to read”!! But yes, this is definitely a good place to start.

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  3. Gawd, I remember reading this (after seeing the film), getting to the end, and wanting to beat Maugham about the head with his own Bible. What a miserable bunch the mid-century Catholic novelists were. (It’s very annoying that they generally also happened to be such stunningly talented writers; Maugham and Greene both redeem themselves in my eyes by being good at what they do, although I still don’t have any time for Waugh.)

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    • I’m not sure Maugham was Catholic. He was orphaned as a 10yo and raised by his uncle, a CoE vicar, who, by all accounts seemed emotionally cold and distant. I think Maugham rejected religion of any kind as a result. Probably didn’t help he was gay and had to hide it behind an unhappy marriage to a woman.

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      • Oh! I just Wiki’d him and you’re absolutely right. Which maybe makes it worse…? (“Maugham did not believe in God, nor an afterlife, and considered the notions of future punishment or reward to be outrageous.[32]” – then why write an ending that so relentlessly punishes a mistake that was basically frivolous and stupid?)

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        • Probably because he saw no rhyme nor reason to anything. Have you read Of Human Bondage, which is thinly veiled autobiography? All the horrendous things that happen to him helps explain his world view, his bitterness and cruelty, I think.

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  4. Save perhaps the ending that sounds excellent, and a weaker ending is forgivable in a shorter book (I’ve not seen the film, perhaps after I read the book). My next Maugham will be his oddity The Magician, about a sort of fictionalised Aleister Crowley but I’ll definitely look this out after that.

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    • Oh, I’d not heard of The Magician before, but have looked it up and it sounds fascinating. I want to read The Moon and Sixpence next… apparently it’s based on the life of Paul Gaugin and I love a good novel about art.

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