I recently read The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham, selected by my book club. It turned out to an apt book to read during the pandemic as a part of the plot is set in a place in interior China, besieged by cholera. Although cholera is a water borne disease, the fear experienced by the population is eerily familiar. As the outbreak sweeps through the region, people are dying like flies, there are daily burials and abandoned corpses on the street. People are ordered to quarantine at home and doctors work around the clock to attend to the ill. Death hovers everywhere and the precariousness of life hits you with uneasy relevance.
The cholera epidemic is however not the main theme of the book but an important backdrop which triggers a transformation in the main protagonist. Kitty Garstin is a beautiful but shallow and frivolous socialite who marries for the wrong reason. When her younger sister announces her own engagement, she panics and accepts a proposal of marriage from Walter Fane, a shy and boring bacteriologist, her total opposite. She is not in love with her husband but he seems to worship her. The story is set in the English colony of Hong Kong in the 1920s. While Walter is entirely absorbed in his work, Kitty has a torrid affair with Charles Townsend, the charismatic Assistant Colonial Secretary who is married with three children.
When Walter discovers her adulterous affair, he gives her an ultimatum: She should either move with him to a remote region in China ravaged by the cholera epidemic where he has volunteered to help in fighting the disease or prepare to be brought to court on the charge of adultery which will ruin her reputation and that of her lover’s too. He also gives her another option: if she convinces Charles Townsend to divorce his wife and marry her, he will move out of their way and she can stay in Hong Kong. Kitty is delighted by this unexpected suggestion but when she confronts her lover with the proposal, he refuses to leave his wife. She is heartbroken and agrees to go with her husband to fight the cholera epidemic in Mei-tan-fu. Walter must have been confident that Charles wouldn’t leave his wife. But Kitty failed to realize that he was a shallow cad and is utterly devastated. Walter knows that his wife doesn’t love him and utters these heartbreaking words, among the saddest on unrequited love in literature:
“I never expected you to love me, I didn’t see any reason that you should, I never thought myself very lovable. I was thankful to be allowed to love you and I was enraptured when now and then I thought you were pleased with me or when I noticed in your eyes a gleam of good-humoured affection. I tried not to bore you with my love; I knew I couldn’t afford to do that and I was always on the lookout for the first sign that you were impatient with my affection. What most husbands expect as a right I was prepared to receive as a favour.”
Kitty is not a sympathetic character at first; she is quite loathsome. And Walter appears to be a saint. But why does he wish to take Kitty to a cholera infested place, risking both their lives? Is there more to this than meets the eye? While in Mei-tan-fu, he becomes increasingly cold and inscrutable, she is filled with remorse and begins to appreciate his good qualities and respects him more. She befriends Waddington, a local customs official who helps her find meaning in life and introduces her to Taoism. “Tao. Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whiskey and some in love. It is all the same Way, and it leads nowhither.” He also accompanies her to visit Catholic nuns in a local convent who end up having a profound impact on her. She finds their values of self-sacrifice, duty and charity awe-inspiring and starts working with the orphaned and sick children there. Maugham shows a parallel between the Christian detachment and self denial of the nuns and Buddhist and Taoist philosophies. Kitty starts pondering the mystery of existence and realizes that there is more to life than the petty problems she faces.
The story has a lot of twists and turns which I don’t want to reveal in case anyone reading my post is planning to read the book. Does the couple reconcile and find happiness together? Or does Kitty go back to the arms of her insincere lover? Are they able to emerge unscathed from the epidemic that ravages the region? Meanwhile Kitty discovers that she is pregnant as if life weren’t complicated enough!
Maugham has the amazing skill to make us change the way we perceive both the main characters. Although Kitty was a disagreeable character at first, by the end of the book you are more forgiving of her and understand her actions better. She was the product of her environment and raised by a hen pecked father and a vain and self absorbed mother whose only agenda was to groom her daughters for marriage. Walter himself was superficial and married Kitty only for her looks although he was aware of her flaws.
After going through the dark night of the soul, Kitty reassesses her life and the choices she made. Human beings have the capacity to learn from mistakes and grow but it is a two step forward one step backward process as we see in Kitty’s case. She becomes more sympathetic to her father’s plight and both father and daughter are united in their grief and learn to express their love for each other. There is a beautiful feminist message at the end of the story.
My only criticism with the book is the dehumanizing portrayal of Chinese children. Kitty Fane has a distaste for the Chinese orphans who “…sallow skinned, stunted with their flat noses, .. looked to her hardly human. They were repulsive.”These derogatory epithets made me cringe. One could say that it is the character’s perspective and not the author’s but in general there are no significant Chinese characters in the story. They are nameless and lumped together. There is a Manchu princess, the mistress of Waddington who with her painted doll face is exoticized to such a ridiculous degree that it erases her agency as a human being. The story has to be read in the colonial context of the era.
The title of the novel is taken from the opening line of a sonnet by Shelley, “Lift not the painted veil which those who live call Life..”. If we lift the veil we discover the truth that lies beneath the painted veil. Is it better to live an authentic life and face the realities of imperfect relationships rather than dissembling or living in denial? Does it matter as life is an illusion anyway? Maugham was deeply interested in Eastern philosophy and the veil could refer to the Buddhist concept of maya or illusion.
There are two other literary allusions in the story. In the preface to the book, Maugham writes that he was inspired by a canto in Dante’s Purgatorio in writing the book and he explains how he proceeded from a story rather than from a character.“I think that this is the only novel I have written in which I started from a story rather than from a character. It is difficult to explain the relation between character and plot. You cannot very well think of a character in the void; the moment you think of him, you think of him in some situation, doing something…” The second intertextual reference is to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith. I am refraining on commenting on both the references as they would reveal plot details but they add a lot of depth to the story.
The Painted Veil is more than a story of forbidden love- it is a beautiful tale of self discovery and redemption. Kitty Fane often gazes at the vast and dreamlike Chinese landscape from a curtained chair lifted by coolies. Her journey through interior China is a moral one too and the image of her, veiled, at a height and distance is an apt metaphor for many things- the colonial gaze, her spiritual awakening and last but not the least, the painted veil that is life.