The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

This is the meanest book I’ve read in a long time.

The Painted Veil opens with a husband arriving home early to find his wife, Kitty, the main character, in bed with his boss.  He does not confront the two lovers, but he later forces Kitty to either leave Hong Kong with him for the remote, Cholera ridden town of Mei-tan-fu or convince her lover to marry otherwise  he will file for divorce causing a great scandal.  She’s completely wrong about her lover who won’t leave his wife, won’t risk his position, and is happy to send her off  with her husband to Mei-tan-fu though everyone knows she could easily die of Cholera if she goes along. In fact, that’s why her husband wants her to go with him in the first place, a sort of murder suicide.

The section in Mei-tan-fu reminded me of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.  The whole novel has a static atmosphere.  Everyone seems to be removed from time and the world around them.  In the early chapters, set among the British nationals who live and work in 1920’s Hong Kong, there’s a constant feeling that the season is long over and everyone should be going back home.  This feeling is much stronger in Mei-tan-fu. That Mei-tan-fu is suffering a Cholera outbreak adds an additional echo to Death in Venice.  I imagine Mr. Maugham must have at lease heard of Death in Venice if not read it.  The two novels share a tonal atmosphere, though their stories are quite different.

I had many problems with The Painted Veil.  First, some of the dialogue is just not to be believed.  I can accept that the characters are the way they are and treat each other the way they do, but, oh, do they say “oh” a lot. There are several scenes that  would be difficult to read out loud without laughing and  a few points when characters openly preach.  Waddington, the white man with a Manchu wife who lives in Mei-tan-fu, gives the main character a little lecture on Tao and the Mother Superior who runs the orphanage in Mei-tan-fu gives Kitty several  homilies about duty and faith.

The nuns Kitty works with in Mei-tan-fu are presented as truly devote with no sense of irony on the narrator’s part what-so-ever.  I’ve the feeling that Mr. Maugham was a devout Catholic because there is no reason for Kitty or for the reader to ever doubt the sincere intentions of the nuns, nor of the rightness of their actions.  Of the seven original nuns who went to Mei-tan-fu from France, only three survive by the time Kitty arrives.  One of these is the mother superior who left a very wealthy family back in France, one with several chateaux.

Lastly, Kitty experiences the most profound character growth I’ve ever witnessed in a novel.  She begins as an empty headed party girl who played around with men’s hearts until she was too old to make a good marriage.  She marries Walter, whom she knows she will never love, because her younger sister is about to marry a Baron.  She cheats on Walter frivolously the first chance she gets and falls in love with a man as emotionally bankrupt as she is.  But once she is in Mei-tan-fu where she is the only white woman who is not a nun, she has a series of  epiphanies.  She sees herself and Walter for what they both are, understands how meaningless her own life has become, recognizes that there is not a single person in the world who really cares if she lives or dies, and falls under the spell of the nuns and their Catholic sense of duty and Mr. Waddington’s Taoist acceptance of whatever comes along.  All of this leaves her much more ready to accept the traditional role of wife/mother than she ever was.

Much of this would be hard to take, much of it should be hard to take, but The Painted Veil is a clear case of  whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  I recognize all of the novel’s flaws, and I’ll argue they are actual flaws, but in spite of them, the book is a powerful one.  Kitty Fane is a character who’ll stay with me for a while.  While this book is a B+ book, I expect it will end up on my best reads of 2010 list.

I loved it.

The movie not so much.

I don’t expect filmmakers to be totally faithful to the book.  A book with as many flaws as The Painted Veil could surely use some improving.  But the changes made for the Edward Norton/Naomi Watts 2006 film somehow created a  whole that was less than the sum of its parts.

The 2006 movie makes Walter Fane a hero, expanding his “on-screen” time, placing his story in the midst of China’s 1925 Nationalist Movement, expanding the depiction of his work fighting Cholera.  While the novel is focused entirely on Kitty Fane and ends with her firmly replace back within the framework of what a traditional good woman should be, the 2006 movie goes for a more feminist tone, removing most of the religion from the story, cutting down the Mother Superior role to almost a cameo and making Waddington’s “wife” into more of a devoted mistress and Waddington into something of an opium eater.  All of this takes what was a very quick read and makes it a 128 minute marathon.  I confess, I was hitting the fast forward button a few times towards the end.

There is, however, lots of gratuitous scenery, and it is very beautiful.  Here is the trailer.

Full Disclosure and Thank You to Amanda at A Zen Leaf who sent me a copy of The Painted Veil as part of The Challenge that Dare Not Speak Its Name.


This review is almost a history of book blogging, my book blogging anyway.  I book I received from another blogger, Amanda, who was one of the big, big book bloggers back in the day and has since left and returned to book blogging.  You really should check out her blog at the link above.  She was running one challenge, The Challenge that Dare Not Speak Its Name while I was running another, The Read the Book; See the Movie Challenge. Both were fun challenges.  I kind of miss the challenge mania that was going on back in 2010. I was fun.  Too many people took it too seriously for it to last, but it was fun.

6 thoughts on “The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

  1. I can’t believe I’ve never read any Somerset Maugham- I even have one on my shelf that my younger sister proclaims is one of her favorite books (Of Human Bondage). How can it be “one of the meanest books” you’ve ever read, and yet you loved it? But it doesn’t sound like one I’d want to read, at least not a top pick yet…

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