Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publication Date: First published in 1925
Publisher: BBC Audiobooks*
*I began listening to the 2007 Blackstone Audio version, but switched about an hour in to the 2008 BBC Audiobooks version because I disliked the narrator (Kate Reading narrates the Blackstone Audio version and Sophie Ward narrates the BBC Audiobooks version).
Audio Sample of the 2007 Blackstone Audio Version
Audio Sample of the 2008 BBC Audiobooks Version
Blurb: Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil is the story of the beautiful but love-starved Kitty Fane. When her husband discovers her adulterous affair, he forces her to accompany him to the heart of a cholera epidemic. Stripped of the British society of her youth and the small but effective society she fought so hard to attain in Hong Kong, she is compelled by her awakening conscience to reassess her life and learn how to love. The Painted Veil is a beautifully written affirmation of the human capacity to grow, to change, and to forgive.
There’s something so affecting about tragedy created by social mores – tragedy that only exists because it’s born in a certain place and a certain time. While reading this book I just kept thinking, what if? What if women were allowed to seek their own status and power and weren’t completely dependent on that of their husbands? What if girls weren’t isolated but allowed to travel and gain experience or an education? What if marriage were optional? What if divorce were a simple thing? But I guess even the possible solutions to these hypotheticals wouldn’t remove all the sadness from this book. What if we weren’t all born with a severely limited worldview? would be a better question, but of course that’s just a permanent part of the human condition.
Kitty Fane, in many respects, has the worldview of a small child, and that is her tragedy. She was bred to make an advantageous marriage – to finally realize all of her mother’s long repressed ambitions. She was raised in a narrow, cosseted, ridiculously skewed environment and so became narrow, cosseted, and ridiculously skewed. Kitty doesn’t want to be married, but after several seasons out and no husband, the pressure to choose someone increases. Desperate to appease her mother and beat her younger sister to the altar, she accepts the hand of quiet, intellectual bacteriologist Walter who seems to have genuine feeling for her, even though he barely knows her.
Kitty is foolish, selfish, immature, and closed-minded. She doesn’t love Walter – in fact – he bores and irritates her. Once in Walter’s assigned post of Hong Kong, she begins an affair with the charming and middle aged (not to mention, married) Charles Townsend. And that’s where this book opens: a bedroom, a locked door, two lovers, and a humiliated husband.
I admit that I loved Kitty from the beginning, even though her choices were maddening. She’s weak-willed and horribly naïve, but she does have the good sense to realize when she’s been wrong. And she has the courage to try to change herself, even though she doesn’t always succeed. Maugham doesn’t reform her completely and I think she’s all the more sympathetic for that. She fights against her own barriers: against her weakness and selfishness and outright disgust of the Chinese, but she never becomes a perfect, enlightened adult.
I think that one of the hallmarks of adulthood is that moment when you feel like you’ve become stable: when you finally feel like you’ve learned a few things. You finally feel mature. And then something comes along and casually knocks you off your feet and you realize that you still don’t know a damn thing. Kitty experiences that completely, and I think it’s a huge testament to how much maturity she gains that she picks herself up, brushes herself off, and keeps on going. Her mistakes in this book actually made me love her even more, because she doesn’t let them define her.
Nor is Walter portrayed as the simple, wounded hero. This story really is about Kitty and Kitty’s journey toward maturity but Walter is by no means a side character. It frankly amazed me just how vivid and three-dimensional he felt, given that he’s barely in the novel at all! Maugham was able to paint Walter so completely in brief, concentrated scenes (“It was the dog that died.” Talk about a punch in the face!). But of course, Walter is a quiet person: he speaks in actions or silences and rarely ever with words. Although, his one major speech in the book, where he basically tells Kitty exactly where she can go, is very satisfying:
"I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew that your aims and ideals were vulgar and commonplace. But I loved you. I knew that you were second-rate. But I loved you. It's comic when I think how hard I tried to be amused by the things that amused you and how anxious I was to hide from you that I wasn't ignorant and vulgar and scandal-mongering and stupid. I knew how frightened you were of intelligence and I did everything I could to make you think me as big a fool as the rest of the men you knew. I knew that you'd only married me for convenience. I loved you so much, I didn't care."
He’s shy and self-contained with little to no charm. He’s sensitive and passionate, but when wronged that passion becomes an ugly thing. He becomes cold and he can’t forgive. He’s far from the meek fool that Charles Townsend assumes he is and he’s also not the sweet loving husband that Kitty thought she married.
However, Walter’s love for Kitty is just as naïve as her love for Charles Townsend, and in the end it is she (not he – “the dog”) who has the resiliency and bravery to forgive and try to move forward. When set against the wildness of rural China and the indiscriminate brutality of cholera, their doomed relationship becomes even more of a pointless tragedy.
Tatiana challenged me to read this book and I’m so glad she did!