Kitty Fane is a terrible judge of character. For most of her life, she believes in the façades people present to her. She like charming people who know how to be amusing. She never bothers to really get to know anyone who requires an effort. In The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham, Kitty learns the errors of her ways in brutal fashion during the middle of a cholera outbreak in southern China. The Painted Veil is one of the most emotionally honest books I’ve ever read. All of Kitty’s warts are on full display in this book and nothing is easy. I was completely hooked.
In a brief preface, Maugham discusses his inspiration for The Painted Veil: an old Italian poem about an adulterous woman punished by her husband in a creative, terrible manner. In the poem, the adulterous woman in sent to a place where she will catch a fatal illness. Her husband doesn’t kill her outright or cause a scandal. It’s chilling. It’s still chilling when that same scenario more or less plays out in this novel. We meet Kitty while she’s in the throes of an affair with Charles Townsend, a bureaucrat in the British government in Hong Kong. They declare that they are in love but, as we soon learn, Kitty is more in love than Charles is. For him, the affair is one of many he has had. He falls in love easily. For Kitty, however, Charles seems like the perfect man—much better for her than her actual husband, Walter. Kitty only married Walter because he proposed at the right time. Her mother was unbearable, who constantly chided her for waiting too long to get married. Her plainer younger sister was about to get married. There were no other offers on the horizon. So, Kitty married a bacteriologist and sailed off to Hong Kong even though she does not like him.
But when Walter finds out about the affair, he gives Kitty an ultimatum. Either she goes with him inland to a town suffering a cholera epidemic or he takes Kitty and Charles to court for an acrimonious divorce, which would ruin Charles’ career. There’s another option, though. Walter says he will give Kitty a quiet divorce if Charles’ wife agrees to divorce him and the two can marry. Kitty is delighted to be offered an out, but only until Charles reveals his true nature. Charles was never going to do anything to damage his career or cozy set up in Hong Kong. Seeing no other option, Kitty goes with Walter into the middle of an epidemic.
The poem Maugham references in his preface is not the only literary allusion in The Painted Veil. At the emotional climax of the novel, Walter quotes Oliver Goldsmith’s “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.” The poem is about a moment of blind violence when a dog strikes out at a man and its consequences. This book hinges on an act of revenge that has huge ramifications for Kitty and Walter. When I read the poem, shortly after finishing The Painted Veil, I was hit with a wave of agonized surprise at what was at the heart of Walter’s actions and all that came from them. The irrational bite of a hurt animal is a good analogy for what Walter felt when he realized that the frivolous woman he married was cheating on him and he formulated his ultimatum.
The Painted Veil is a brilliant study of characters: Kitty’s, Walter’s, Charles’, and others. Kitty receives the most attention. We learn about her background and her parents. Perhaps Kitty really couldn’t help the way she was, as she protests a time or two. So it’s deeply satisfying when Kitty finally learns how to see the true worth of people in spite of their first impressions or appearance. Kitty also learns to get past her racism towards Chinese people, thankfully. (Kitty is truly awful at times.) This novel is short, in terms of page length, but it unspooled over weeks. Nothing feels rushed. Maugham also includes a few Orientalist touches when a character explains Taoist philosophy to Kitty, but these didn’t do much more than make me raise my eyebrows. That said, these touches help push Kitty towards being a better person, who doesn’t take people at face value any more.
It’s a pity that she couldn’t have learned to do that earlier. But if this book had had a happier ending. however, it wouldn’t have had as strong an impact on me. I love books that forgo happy endings when it would have felt forced. After all that time spent showing us all the unpleasant corners of Kitty’s mind, a happy ending would have been dishonest. Above all else, this is a book about emotional honesty.