The Painted Veil
W. Somerset Maugham, published in 1925. First published in serialized form in Cosmopolitan (1924).
The title of Maugham’s novel is taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley's sonnet, which begins "Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life.”
Maugham originally wrote the story about a character whose name was Lane, but after the success of a case for libel against the publishers by a Hong Kong couple, he changed it to Fane. After the then Assistant Colonial Secretary in Hong Kong also threatened legal action, the name of the colony was changed to Tching-Yen. Later editions reverted to Hong Kong but the name Fane was kept for all editions.
Maugham uses a third-person-limited point of view in this story, where Kitty Garstin is the focal character. There are two types of third-person point of view – omniscient in which the narrator knows all of the thoughts and feelings of all the other characters, or limited in which the narrator relates only their own thoughts, feelings, and knowledge about situations and other characters.
In this novel, Kitty Garstin, a pretty upper-middle class debutante, is the focal character. She (according to her mother) squanders her early youth amusing herself by living a social high life, during which her domineering mother attempts to arrange a "brilliant match" for her. By age 25, Kitty has flirted with and declined marriage proposals from dozens of prospective husbands.
Kitty’s mother, who definitely wants to get Kitty off her hands, tells her daughter that she has "missed her market.” Kitty, faced with the rather unpleasant prospect of serving as a bridesmaid for her younger sister, impulsively decides to marry the “odd” Walter Fane, a bacteriologist and physician. His primary attraction is that he is different from her other suitors and he is returning to China. She will be married and gone by the time her sister is married. She agrees to marry Walter by saying: "I suppose so". She finds out that she has made a mistake three months after their marriage.
Not only is she rather repelled with certain aspects of Walter, she finds that her station in the social world in Hong Kong is dependent not on her own inherited social position, but on Walter’s. After settling in the Far East, Kitty meets Charlie Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary. He is tall, handsome, urbane and charming. He pursues her and they begin an affair.
Later, Walter, still devoted to his wife, comes home after lunch and finds the doors to her bedroom locked and a man’s hat in the hallway. The first scene in the novel takes place in this bedroom where Kitty and her lover Charlie stand speechless and watch the handles turn as someone tries to enter the bedroom by the door and two shuttered windows.
Kitty later finds out that it is Walter.
Charlie promises Kitty that, come what may, he will stand by her. Aware that the cuckolded Walter is his administrative inferior, Charlie feels confident that the bacteriologist will avoid scandal to protect his career and reputation.
For her part, Kitty, who has never felt real affection for her husband, grasps that, in fact, he is fully aware of her infidelity (though he initially refrains from confronting her) and she begins to despise his apparent cowardice. She discerns, however, an ominous change in his demeanour, masked by his scrupulous, punctilious behavior.
Walter eventually confronts Kitty about the affair and gives her a choice; either accompany him to a village on the mainland beset by an outbreak of cholera, or submit to a public and socially humiliating divorce.
Kitty goes to see Townsend who refuses to leave his wife. Their conversation, when she realizes he doesn't wish to make a sacrifice for the relationship, unfolds gradually, as Kitty grasps Charlie's true nature.
She is surprised to find when she returns home that Walter has already had her clothes packed, knowing Townsend would let her down. Heartbroken and disillusioned, Kitty decides she has no option but to accompany Walter to the cholera-infested mainland of China.
At first suspicious and bitter, Kitty finds herself embarked on a journey of self-appraisal. She meets Waddington, a British deputy commissioner, who provides her with insights as to the unbecoming character of Charlie.
He further introduces her to the French nuns who, at great personal risk, are nursing the sick and orphaned children of the cholera epidemic. Walter has immersed himself in the difficulties of managing the cholera crisis. His character is held in high esteem by the nuns and the local officials because of his self-sacrifice and tenderness towards the suffering populace.
Kitty, however, remains unable to feel attraction towards him as a man and husband. Kitty meets with the Mother Superior, an individual of great personal force, yet loved and respected. The nun allows Kitty to assist in caring for the older children at the convent, but will not permit her to engage with the sick and dying. Kitty's regard for her deepens and grows.
Kitty discovers that she is pregnant and suspects that Charles Townsend is the father. When Walter confronts her on the matter, she answers his inquiry by stating, "I don’t know". She cannot bring herself to deceive her husband again. Soon after, Walter falls ill in the epidemic, possibly through experimenting upon himself to find a cure for cholera, and Kitty, at his deathbed, hears his last words.
She returns to Hong Kong where she is met by Dorothy Townsend, Charlie's wife, who convinces Kitty to come to stay with them, as Kitty is now mistakenly regarded as a heroine who voluntarily and faithfully followed her husband into great danger.
At the Townsend house, much against her intentions, she is seduced by Charlie and makes love with him once more despite admitting he is vain and shallow, much as she once was. She is disgusted with herself and tells him what she thinks of him.
Kitty returns to Britain, discovering en route that her mother has died. Her father, a reasonably successful barrister, is appointed Chief Justice of a minor British colony in the Caribbean (the Bahamas) and she persuades him to allow her to accompany him there. She decides to dedicate her life to her father and ensuring that her child is brought up avoiding the mistakes she had made.
The novel has been adapted for the stage and film several times:
The Painted Veil 1932) at The Playhouse, London
The Painted Veil (1934)
The Seventh Sin (1957)
The Painted Veil (2006)
Cordell. Richard A. "Somerset Maugham at Eighty" in College English, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Jan. 1954), pp. 201–207.
H. J. Lethbridge. Hong Kong Cadets, 1862–1941, p. 56.
"The Painted Veil: Summary, Review and 3 Things To Love About it". Friends of Words. 4 December 2019. Retrieved 7 February 2020.
"The Painted Veil". theatricalia.com. Matthew Somerville. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
TRAILER FOR THE SEVENTH SIN
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