All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

The Painted Veil – William Somerset Maugham

on October 7, 2012

The Painted Veil
William Somerset Maugham
2001 (originally 1925), 213p
Read from my TBR pile

Kitty is beautiful and it was always expected that she would make a good match. But after several seasons, she is still yet to accept an offer and when her younger, much plainer sister makes a good engagement in her first year of coming out, Kitty is astounded. And embarrassed. She hastily accepts the next man who asks her, in order not to be so humiliated.

That man is Walter Fane, a bacteriologist. There’s nothing remarkable about him but he loves Kitty to a distraction. Kitty doesn’t love him but she supposes that she can make a sort of agreeable life for herself and after their wedding and honeymoon they make their way out to Hong Kong where Walter has a job. Kitty, unsatisfied in this marriage that she chose, begins an affair with the handsome and charismatic Charles Townsend and filled with excitement and lust, she takes risks in order to snatch hours and afternoons with Charles, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, soon expected to become Colonial Secretary.

When Walter discovers the affair, he gives Kitty two choices: he’ll divorce her, leaving her free to marry Charles only if Charles and his wife also divorce. If Charles will not divorce his wife then Kitty must accompany him to his posting to Mei-tan-fu in China, a place currently stricken by deadly cholera. Selfish, vane, shallow Kitty believes utterly that Charles will definitely want to divorce his wife and be with her – after all, he says he loves her! But when she broaches the subject with him, she finds that Charles’s intentions are utterly different and Kitty is forced to accept the fact that she must go to Mai-tan-fu.

In this remote cholera community, she is surprised to see how much her husband is admired and respected for volunteering to come here and research. At first Kitty is bored, listlessly sitting in their accommodations but then she hears of an orphanage run by a group of French nuns and she undertakes to visit them and is impressed by their diligence and faith. Kitty wants to fee useful for the first time in her life so she begins volunteering with the nuns, helping them out in any way that she can. It gives her something to do while her husband works long, punishing hours, barely sleeping.

Kitty has been cossetted and spoiled her entire life, wanting for nothing, having no responsibilities. But her time in this harsh place will change her, will force her to grow up and accept her actions and do what is necessary to ensure her safety.

Some time ago I picked up the dvd adaptation of this novel starring Australian actress Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber and Edward Norton as Kitty Fane, Charlie Townsend and Walter Fane respectively. It’s still shrinkwrapped in plastic because after buying it I discovered that it was based on a book and I knew I couldn’t watch it until I’d read the book. I found a Vintage edition of the novel in a local discount book warehouse (now defunct) and when I was making my list of 50 classics for The Classics Club, this book was definitely one I wanted to put on the list.

From the outset, Kitty is not established as a likable or sympathetic character – the book opens with a scene with her and Charles in bed after lunch while her husband is at work when Kitty sees the handle on the door tried. She’s terrified it’s Walter and they wait and hold their breath until whoever is at the door goes away. Kitty is pretty, beautiful in fact and her domineering mother was hopeful of her making a very good match. Kitty seemed disinclined to accept anyone until her younger, much less attractive sister Doris made a good match in her first first season and looked like marrying before her. Kitty accepted Walter Fane in a rather bored manner and they departed England for their honeymoon and Hong Kong before the wedding of Doris, something that makes Kitty happy as she doesn’t have to be a bridesmaid for her sister. She is very blunt about not loving Walter, that he bores her and that her affair with Charles is exciting and wonderful and different. She’s also naive enough to think that he truly loves her and that he’ll leave his very capable wife for her, should the situation require it. Kitty is brought back to Earth with a thump when Charles tells her no, he won’t leave his wife and she’d better pop along to that little cholera colony.

Walter is a seemingly mild-mannered, shy man desperately in love with Kitty and I have to admit, his cold order for her to accompany him to a cholera colony in China seemed a rather vicious act of revenge from a man who seemed so meek. Kitty is sure that he means to take her there as a way for her to die (and at a later stage in the novel, Walter admits this thought had crossed his mind) but she goes. She sucks it up and she goes with him – a steamer trip to China and then 9 days being carried upon a chair until they reach the colony.

Once in the colony interestingly enough, it is Kitty who thrives and Walter who wanes. Kitty finds strength and maturity in meeting the local nuns who came from France years ago and helping them in their orphanage. She spends each day there and it’s hard to get her to return home whereas Walter works himself into the ground, perhaps punishing himself or dealing with his heartbreak. They are virtual strangers, cordial and polite when in each other’s company, but their interactions are limited. Kitty is forced to look at her actions, the way in which she has behaved and she seems to try and make amends.

I really enjoyed this book – I came to really appreciate Kitty’s story and I almost felt a bit sorry for her in the end. Groomed to be one thing, felt forced into accepting any proposal to save her face… Trying to find happiness in the wrong way but when things got rough, she stuck it out. She went to China, she found something useful to do, she came to accept her feelings for her husband would never verge into love but she refused to deceive him again when she could. I found it a satisfying experience, like everything happened in a way that made sense to me. It’s not necessarily a happy ever after book, but it has a finished feel.


Book #200 of 2012

The Painted Veil is the fourth novel completed for my challenge for The Classics Club where the goal is to read 50 classic novels (chosen by me) in 5 years.

5 responses to “The Painted Veil – William Somerset Maugham

  1. Jaycie says:

    One of my favorites!

  2. Marg says:

    Congratulations of reaching book no. 200.

  3. This is on my classics club list too, so I was pleased to see how much you enjoyed it. I quite like novels with unsympathetic main characters – it makes a nice change!

  4. Amy says:

    I also loved this. Kitty’s growth was so believable and unsentimental. Good book.

  5. This sounds really really good! I should probably add it to my list, but I’m trying to stick to the 90 or so that I have on there now!! -Sarah

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