Vintage Classics, 1925, 214 pages
First published in 1925, The Painted Veil is an affirmation of the human capacity to grow, change, and forgive. Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, it is the story of the beautiful but shallow young Kitty Fane. When her husband discovers her adulterous affair, he forces her to accompany him to a remote region of China ravaged by a cholera epidemic.
Stripped of the British society of her youth and overwhelmed by the desolation around her, she is compelled by her awakening conscience to reassess her life. She takes up work with children at a convent, but when her husband dies, she is forced to return to England to her father, her one remaining relative, to raise her unborn child. Though too late for her marriage, she has learned humility, independence, and how to love.
I've heard W. Somerset Maugham raved about by literati, but never read any of his works before. This short novel &mdash: which is very much a work of its time, and not the worse for it &mdash: happens to hit one of my favorite themes, being a redemption story for a character who starts out thoroughly unlikable and with few redeeming qualities.
Kitty Fane is a shallow, materialistic daughter of a shallow, materialistic mother who henpecked Kitty's father, always seeking to improve their lot in life, and when that failed, pushed Kitty and her more fortunate younger sister into marrying well. Unfortunately, Kitty was young and vain and stubborn and turned down the many proposals she received, no one meeting her standards, until suddenly she was past her shelf life at the ripe old age of 25. Well, be fair, this was the early 20th century marriage market in British society.
So Kitty winds up marrying a bacteriologist, a decent, boring, unexceptional man who adores her, and whom she finds barely tolerable. When the two of them go off to Hong Kong, she escapes the tedium of her marriage by falling victim (a very willing victim, as she admits herself) to the seductions of the local lothario. When her husband finds out, he forces her to come with him to a city in rural China that's being ravaged by cholera.
The story is a simple tragic tale of adultery and redemption. But Maugham truly excels in detailing the inner workings of his characters, and shows us Kitty's thoughts, as she slowly transforms from a horrible, self-centered nightmare to someone who eventually becomes capable of seeing through the eyes of others, and then seeing herself through others' eyes, and then realizing that she is not in fact the center of the universe. And he does it very convincingly — by the end, you are actually able to like Kitty.
Despite the entire story being told through Kitty's POV, the other characters — her husband, her lover, the Mother Superior at the Chinese orphanage, and eventually, Kitty's father — are all described with in such realistic and believable detail that you are thoroughly able to understand them as well, both before and after Kitty is able to do the same.
This was a very nice piece of writing, full of interesting character studies and a story and setting just rich enough to be vivid, just sparse enough not to contain anything unneeded. I will definitely have to read more Maugham.
The Painted Veil (2006)
I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia that there had been two movie versions of The Painted Veil before this one, including a 1934 film starring Greta Garbo. I will have to track that down someday.
The 2006 movie starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton is very pretty. It did seem more like a remake of previous films rather than a strict adaptation of Maugham's novel. Of course it is turned into a love story, in which Kitty and her husband are eventually able to achieve a rapprochement they didn't in the book, with a bittersweet ending for Kitty that is cheerier than the far more bittersweet ending Maugham wrote. There is a lot more drama in the movie over British colonialism, with Chinese characters made more prominent and the Fanes put in peril from warlords and nationalists, since the movie is set in 1925 Shanghai rather than the slightly earlier Hong Kong of the original story. It's a nice period piece, but it hardly captures the spirit of Maugham's writing.
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