Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

I’m reviewing this book together with my good friend Amanda of The Zen Leaf.

Synopsis:  Set in the 1920s in England, Hong Kong, and China, The Painted Veil is the story of  Kitty Fane. Young, beautiful, and shallow, she marries Walter Fane after realizing she was running out of time and needed to catch a husband quickly.  After a short courtship, she accompanies Walter to Hong Kong where he is working as a bacteriologist. She soon becomes bored with Walter, and has an affair with a diplomat. Walter discovers her infidelity and decides to punish her by forcing her to accompany him on a dangerous medical mission to a cholera-stricken village in China. Oddly enough the worst circumstances bring out the best in Kitty.
Amanda: Hi Karen! Thanks for buddy-reviewing with me!
I think I want to start out by talking about William Somerset Maugham. I first read one of his books in January 2001 – Mrs. Craddock – and fell in love with it. I’ve since read 12-15 of his books, several of them more than once. He’s one of my favorite classic authors. His books are easy to read and well thought out. The Painted Veil is one of my favorites of his. This is the third time I’ve read it, and I think I love it just a little bit more with each reread! So how did you discover Maugham?
Karen: I discovered Maugham back when I was a freshman in college. I had a huge crush on a boy in my dorm who had read Maugham the year before in a lit class. He insisted on lending me Of Human Bondage to read during the winter break. Of course, since I was crushing on him, I had to read it, and I loved it. It was one of the first classics I read for pleasure. I didn’t read any more Maugham until I met the man who is now my husband, also a Maugham fan — The Razor’s Edge is one of his favorite books. (Obviously, I’m attracted to men with great taste in literature!) So I read Razor’s Edge, and a couple others, but then I didn’t read hardly any more Maugham for quite awhile. Then, in 2008, our classics reading group chose the books for this year, but The Painted Veil wasn’t scheduled for almost a year! I couldn’t wait that long and read it right away. It’s just as good the second time around.
I agree, Maugham’s works are not difficult reads. I’ve been reading quite a few Victorian authors this year, so he’s really a refreshing change. I remember that I was pleasantly surprised at how easy Of Human Bondage was — it’s quite long, more than 600 pages (depending on the edition), yet it’s pretty fast for such a long book. The Painted Veil is much shorter, only about 250 pages, and I could probably read the whole thing in one day.
Amanda: One of the things I find most fascinating about Maugham was how little respected he was amongst his fellow authors. He was a pulp novelist. Often his writing tended more toward the cliche, and his prose was straightforward. With people like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Woolf as contemporaries, he was looked down on for not being experimental like them. He was old fashioned. But really, it was his straightforward, easy prose that hooked me on classics. Without him, I’m not sure what sort of reader I’d be today, or if I’d be a reader at all.
So. The Painted Veil. I loved it. All three times. One of my favorite things about it is the characterization. Each character is so round. None of them are all good or all evil. I personally find Kitty obnoxious, and really sympathize with her husband, but others might find Walter cruel and callous. Personally, I understood him and while I didn’t think he always made the best of judgments, I really admired his dedication to the people he was taking care of. What did you think of the characters?
Karen: There aren’t that many characters, but I agree, they’re well-rounded, especially Kitty. When I started the book, I really wanted to smack her, but I kept on reading — which just shows what a great writer Maugham was. These are seriously flawed people, yet the story is so fascinating that it holds the reader.
Anyway, I’ve really been thinking about some of these flawed characters lately, I’ll probably write a blog entry about it soon. I always think of them as Fascinating Train Wrecks. However, I’m not sure if I’d put Kitty in this category, because she actually makes changes to try and improve the situation. She’s proactive, and as annoying as she was, I actually ended up respecting her. Not that she’s perfect, she still makes mistakes, but you can see at the end that there’s hope for her.
So, Amanda, what did you think of Walter? Did he deserve Kitty?

Amanda: I think the real question is – did Kitty deserve Walter? Taking them back, prior to the affair and him taking her to the cholera epidemic. Walter is smart, hardworking, and sensitive. He has a very hard time relating to other people, and he has no patience for frivolity and social customs. Kitty, on the other hand, is empty-headed, self-centered, and a bit of a bimbo. Why he ever fell in love with her is beyond me – I suppose we can’t always explain why we fall in love with someone – but I think it’s interesting that he went into the whole marriage with his eyes open. He knew what she was. He knew she was like a doll – beautiful but empty. He was willing to put up with that in order to be near her, and he was always very kind. I don’t think Kitty ever realized – not even at the end – how badly she hurt him. She kept thinking it was pride, that her infidelity didn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, but to him, it killed his love.
I do think she became a better person, to a certain degree, but even at the end, she’s still selfish. I hope she’ll be better, and I do like that she plans to have daughters and raise them to be strong and smart, unlike her. That brings up another point, though – I thought this book said a lot of interesting things about the role of women at the time. It seems to take place in a very transitional time when women were gaining some independence but could not entirely be strong. Did you feel Maugham had a feminist slant in mind when he wrote it?
Karen: I think Kitty’s definitely less selfish at the end than at the beginning. Without spoilers, there are several instances when she tries deliberately not to hurt people. And she’s much better at reading people, and reacting to them.
The feminist angle didn’t strike me at all when I read it, but I can see it as a possibility. There are some strong female characters — even the Mother Superior, and Charlie’s wife Dorothy. They’re in traditional roles, nun and wife, but they’re a lot stronger than Charlie and maybe even Walter. I wish Maugham had developed Walter a little more. I think he was the least developed of the main characters. My favorite male character was definitely Waddington, but he was also tragic in his own way. Do you think in general the male characters were as well developed as the female?
Amanda: I actually thought Walter was very well developed, but that might be because of how much I could understand him. He wasn’t traditionally developed – it was just a brushstroke of information spattered here and there throughout the novel, leading to a whole picture. I think about things and feel things in very much the same way he does, so it was easy for me to relate to him and make a full picture of him in my mind, I suppose. I could see other people relating to him less, though, because he’s the sort of personality that many people have trouble relating to in real life. I think Maugham wrote the social awkwardness well.
I have read, though, that Maugham tended to understand women better than men in his own life, so it’s possible that’s why the women characters felt more developed. I loved the Mother Superior. I don’t normally like reading about Catholics, having grown up Catholic, but the Sisters in that convent were so different from traditional Catholics. Take, for example, one of my favorite quotes from the book:
Beauty is also a gift of God, one of the most rare and precious, and we should be thankful if we are happy enough to possess it and thankful, if we are not, that others possess it for our pleasure.
I love this. This goes against most traditional viewpoints of beauty. Most books treat beauty either as a precursor to emptyheadedness, or as a great evil. To hear someone speak this way – especially the head of a Catholic convent – is just amazing. I loved that the Sisters were so open, forgiving, and loving. They were the very picture of charity. Even though normally I don’t like to read much about religion in books, the passages with the Sisters just blew me away and I think they played an integral role in how much Kitty changed. What do you think?
Karen: I completely agree! They’re much more forgiving than Catholics are usually portrayed. It’s no wonder Kitty was really drawn to them. I wish I knew them! And I loved that quote also. I don’t normally make notes when I write, but I think I have to go back with sticky notes and tab all the passages I loved in this book.
One thing that did bother me about this book was the racist way in which the Chinese are portrayed, mostly the way they’re described — ugly, yellow, etc. That’s the one thing that really put me off in this book. But it’s possible that Maugham was merely reflecting the attitude of the British of that time, or Kitty’s attitude. What do you think?
Amanda: I do think that was reflective of Kitty’s attitude. It’s possible there was a certain amount of British superiority to it – I think that’s almost a given in that time period – but the main characters other than Kitty seemed to have compassion for the Chinese. The nuns, Waddington, Walter. They saw past the racial differences and did everything they could to help. The Chinese were just other people to them, not some strange foreign race that repulsed them. Even Kitty tried to get over her prejudice against them once she was surrounded by the children every day. I liked that. I thought it was a good message – that to overcome prejudice, one must spend time with those one is prejudiced against.
Without giving away spoilers, what did you think about the fate of Walter and Kitty’s relationship? Do you think, given the chance, they could have ever come to live together peacefully? Or were they, as Kitty says at one point, “Two little drops in the river that flowed silently towards the unknown; two little drops that to themselves had so much individuality and to the onlooker were but an indistinguishable part of the water?” (That’s my other favorite quote.)

Karen: That’s going to be tough without giving away the ending. I went back and forth as I read the book. Kitty seemed to really be growing and maturing as a person, so I began to feel hopeful, but then I didn’t know if Walter would ever forgive her. It sort of bothered me that Walter was so unforgiving, though he was surrounding by people dying horrible deaths. I would have thought it might have put her transgression in perspective somewhat — but that also relates to him deliberately bringing her into a situation where she might get infected and die, which is so bitter and vengeful. I saw Kitty changing as a person more than Walter, and I began to actually like her better than him.
This book has so many issues that are great for discussion, but it’s really hard without giving away major plot points — and I reaaaallly hate spoilers. I would highly recommend this book for a face-to-face discussion group — not too long, an easy read, a great plot and interesting characters. This was a great choice, and I am so looking forward to reading more by Maugham. There are three more on my to-read bookshelf right now, and I am so tempted to go back and reread Of Human Bondage.
So, I know you’ve read most of the Maugham oeuvre. How does this compare to the others? Is it one of your favorites? Definitely one of mine.
Amanda: Well, I haven’t read his entire works – he was an extremely prolific author. Wikipedia has 54 entries for him under the “Novels, Travel, Criticism, and Assorted Pamphlets” section, plus another 24 plays, 187 periodical contributions, and 123 short stories. I’ve only read a mere glancing of that. I haven’t read a single play or short story, though I hope to fix that next year. Of the novels I’ve read, though, I count The Painted Veil among my favorites, alongside Mrs. Craddock. Some other good ones are The Razor’s Edge, Of Human Bondage, and Theatre. In fact, there have only been two Maugham novels I disliked (The Magician, and The Moon and the Sixpence). I would definitely recommend his books as easy-to-read classics that are fun but also deep.
Thanks again for doing this review with me, Karen! I was having such a hard time figuring out how to review this book, since I love it so much.
Karen: Thank you, Amanda, for inviting me! It was really fun! We’ll have to do it again soon!


  1. Ooh, that's a beautiful cover you found, Karen. I've not seen that one.

    Thanks again for reviewing with me!

  2. You've talked me into reading this one soon. Have you seen the recent movie?

  3. It is great to discover your blog - I'm off for a look around!

  4. Amanda -- that's an alternate cover on the newest edition from Vintage International, which publishes of most of Maugham's novels in paperback. I liked the cover of your edition too -- did you look on Goodreads for an image?

    Jeanne -- yes, I've seen the movie, loved it despite the changes. I thought the cinematography and the score were just stunning.

    farmlanebooks -- welcome! Thanks for visiting!

  5. I did but it was too small. All the images I could find online were so small they just looked ugly. Grr.

  6. Great posting! I just saw the movie based on this novel and I loved it but, from what you wrote, it seems the book is better. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Thanks, Maria! I think both the movie and the book are good. The movie has changed some things around a bit -- I think Kitty is a bit spunkier at the end, and the book explains more about her family. Maugham is a great author, now I want to go back and read all his other books, and reread all the ones I liked. I highly recommend his novels.

  8. The plot sounds like such an interesting perspective... and my book club is discussing this in a few months, so I'm so glad to hear you highly recommend it for that!

  9. Rebecca, I think you'll have a great discussion. There is so much in this novel -- great characters, interesting plot, great writing. Plus, not too long! A perfect discussion book IMHO.


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