I have recently finished listening to W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil on audio, and I had a fabulous time with it. Now, I do tend to enjoy books in a simpler, more visceral kind of way when I listen to them, so I can’t say what my reaction would have been if I’d read the book, but I’m pretty sure I would have liked it that way too.
Its charm comes from the simplicity of the tale — generally speaking it charts the course of a marriage — combined with the complexity of the characterization. It tells the story of Kitty, a foolish, vain, and inexperienced woman who panics when her younger sister marries well, and in response immediately becomes engaged to Walter, a man below her social ambitions but one who has asked her to marry him when other once-plentiful suitors have stopped appearing. After the marriage, they head off to Hong Kong where Walter works as a bacteriologist; here Kitty meets Charles Townsend, an attractive, flirtatious man who quickly seduces her. This is the point where the novel begins, with Kitty deeply in love with Charles and afraid that her husband has learned about the affair.
Once the truth has come out, Walter forces her to accompany him to a province in mainland China where a cholera epidemic is raging. His ostensible reason for traveling here is to put his medical training to use to help stop the epidemic, but Kitty fears – with justification – that the real reason is to ensure that she catches cholera, as a punishment for her unfaithfulness. Kitty is terrified of the new place, seeing things she earlier had no inkling of – poverty, death, bodily decay, political unrest. The sisters of a nearby convent invite her to visit them, and she soon begins to help them with their charity work, raising young girls cast off by a society that sees them as a burden.
So, as you can guess by now, the story is about Kitty’s growth from a selfish and inexperienced person to one who begins to look outside her own small concerns to see the larger world around her. She learns something of the true worth of her lover Charles and also of her husband, who, though he is ready to commit an indirect sort of murder, is not portrayed in the novel as a monster, but as a man who is passionate and foolish in love. The pleasure of the novel, for me, lies in following the twists and turns of Kitty’s growth, as she comes to realize exactly what she has done to her husband, her lover, and herself. Maugham sticks to Kitty’s point of view, so we see the world through her eyes and watch it open up for her.
Another pleasure to be found comes from the relationship of the novel to the novel’s prologue; in the prologue the narrator (or Maugham himself) tells the story of traveling in Italy and learning Italian from a young woman who uses Dante in their lessons. From Dante he learns of the story of a man who suspected his wife of having an affair and took her off to a place where she was bound to catch an illness and die. When she fails to die soon enough, he arranges to have her pushed out of a window. The narrator broods over this story for weeks until he decides to use it in a novel of his own. I won’t tell you the extent to which the plot of The Painted Veil follows the story from Dante, but the effect of the prologue is that you know, or suspect you know, the plot events that are coming, and you can observe how Maugham leads you toward the conclusion, hoping all the while that what you suspect is coming won’t come after all. There is something enjoyable about watching an author lead you towards a known – or suspected – conclusion.
As much as I enjoyed these aspects of the novel, though, I was bothered by the portrayal of China and the Chinese. The English colony in Hong Kong is guilty of a kind of racism that is disturbing – they simply don’t see China or the Chinese, as though they don’t exist except as a source of servants – but the novel makes clear the hideousness of this attitude and one of the things Kitty must learn is to see the humanity of the Chinese people. More bothersome for me was the way China became merely the backdrop for a tale of western spiritual growth. China in the novel is a place westerners travel to in order to learn something about their own spiritual emptiness, at which point, the lesson learned, they move on. It becomes a source of enlightenment, a place where, with the aid of its beautiful landscapes and mysterious ancient religious traditions, people are able to question who they are and what they are seeking in life. It’s important for what it can teach westerners, not for what it is in itself.
So ultimately I had mixed feelings about the novel. This, too, offers its own pleasures. In my experience so far, Maugham has not let me down (Of Human Bondage is a great novel), and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work in the future.