I suppose it counts as serendipity when you’ve been meaning to read more books by an author after liking one years ago, and then a trusted source recommends the film of another book, and then another trusted source gives you a copy of the book… And so it is with W. Somerset Maugham, whose The Razor’s Edge I had enjoyed, and whose The Painted Veil (1925) has recently been in cinemas and even more recently on my reading pile.
This is a character-driven book – though Maugham in the introduction says it is the only novel he has written starting from a story rather than a character – and the central player is Kitty Fane, unfaithful wife of dull government bacteriologist Walter (“with his straight, delicate nose, his fine brow and well-shaped mouth he ought to have been good-looking. But surprisingly enough he was not”). He is stationed in Hong Kong and Kitty finds that heat and boredom drive her into the arms – or thereabouts – of Charles Townsend, Assistant Colonial Secretary in the colony.
Kitty is described in the blurb as “shallow” but I had more sympathy for her than that. After all, “within three months of her marriage she knew that she had made a mistake; but it had been her mother’s fault even more than hers.” And the icy portrait Maugham paints of Kittys’ mother, Mrs Garstin, puts her on a par with the great family villains of literature, a sort of frustrated Lady Macbeth, “hard, cruel, managing, ambitious, parsimonious and stupid.” Her intentions for Kitty are crisp and clear:
It was not a good marriage she aimed at for her daughter, but a brilliant one. … Still no one whose position and income were satisfactory asked [Kitty] to marry him. Mrs Garstin began to grow uneasy. She noticed that Kitty was beginning to attract men of forty and over. She reminded her that she would not be any longer so pretty in a year or two and that young girls were coming out all the time. Mrs Garstin did not mince words in the domestic circle and she warned her daughter tartly that she would miss her market. …
Kitty flushed: she knew that her mother did not care now whom she married so long as somehow she got her off her hands.
All this goes to prove that a good storyteller can breach the old rule of show, don’t tell as much as he likes: besides which, all this is by way of background and if Maugham gave us these scenes in full detail the book would be four times the length.
There are several turning points in the story, some foreseeable and others not, and scenes of breathtaking force, such as the stretch of chapters 22 to 26, where Walter confronts Kitty, who then delivers an ultimatum to her lover Charles. Reading these it is easy to see why a film producer lit up at the prospect: no actor could fail to do justice to the naturalistic but gripping exchanges.
The Painted Veil is one of those books which feels old-fashioned even for its time, yet which satisfies in more or less every way. It brings to us thoughts not only of faithfulness but faith in a wider sense, and of the purpose of life with or without love. All I need to do now is be disappointed by the film adaptation, and the experience will be complete.