W. Somerset Maugham: The Painted Veil

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.


  1. I haven’t read the book but I was surprised at how powerful the film was. I had not been expecting that. I did not realize it was based on a book when I saw it and in some respects I am glad. The number of films that live up to their books could probably be counted on one hand.

  2. Very true Candy; in fact the rule seems to be good book = bad film; bad book = good film (The Godfather?). I will catch the film at some point, and whereas to begin with I thought it couldn’t possibly reflect the icily ironic writing well enough, the later parts of the book rely more on the plot and characters, which should be translatable to film easily. I’m sorry though that the story developments won’t surprise me any more – or I could just leave it a month or two, by which time experience suggests I will have forgotten more or less everything about it…

  3. W. Somerset Maugham is one of the writers I keep coming back to. I know some critics don’t consider him first rank, but I can’t think of many English writers I prefer. Definitely Evelyn Waugh and Elizabeth Taylor. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Graham Greene, although I didn’t care for his writing when I was younger.

  4. Yes, the passions-and-angst-in-British-colonies is certainly something that The Painted Veil has in common with Greene. I read and loved most of Greene’s best known books about 10 or 15 years ago and am now enjoying returning to them. I have The Power and the Glory coming up soon for a book group read.

    Maugham himself was aware of his second-rate status among critics, I believe, and you can sort of see why. It’s unfashionable, I suppose, but the two of his I’ve read are very satisfying. Must admit I didn’t get far with Of Human Bondage when I tried it last year.

  5. I thought Maugham had been completely forgotten, but suddenly everybody’s reading him again! I can’t look at a book blog without seeing one of these Vintage Classics covers. It would be great if he came back into fashion, although it may mean we get a range of Maugham-alike novels published in 2009.

  6. Oh, I wasn’t accusing you of bandwagon jumping! That’s the strange thing. Everybody is coming to him from different directions, but everbody is coming to him.

    Incidentally, I started with The Razor’s Edge, too. (Also filmed—twice, once with Bill Murray—although I’ve never seen it.) I loved it, but was slightly thrown by the similarity in name between the character Larry Darrell and author Lawrence/Larry Durrell. I assume it’s coincidence but it jarred, like having a book featuring the adventures of Iris Mardoch.

  7. Amongst a number of book bloggers out there, there are a portion who like to set challenges (read all Pulitzer winners, books from different countries, etc.) and these seem to keep the passion for reading books alive amongst these loose communities. They tend to be called Book Challenges and pop up every now and again with people flapping about to meet deadlines and whatnot. One recent one is the Outmoded Authors challenge, of which W. Somerset Maugham is one the suggested reads, along with the likes of John Galsworthy, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and G.K. Chesterton, and, heading overseas, Blaise Cendrars, Italo Svevo, and Cesare Pavese. That may explain why old Maugham has been popping up a bit of late.

  8. Poor old Maugham, the paradox of being famous as an outmoded author! Maybe he was predicting that when he described his work as belonging “in the very top rank of the second rate”.

  9. The thing about Maugham is that he’s interested in human nature and he’s ineterested in the meaning of life. His writing can be dated, and he as a person is sometimes not a person I’d like to know personally, as he can be catty and judgmental, but all in all, he makes some very interesting comments about the human condition and can write a fine story. I return to him and always find something worth reading.

  10. Just read WSM’s THE NARROW CORNER, lovely in itself, and apparently a prime inspiration for Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume Napoleonic war adventure series featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin.

    The Maugham characters are Captain Nicholls and Doctor Saunders. Each is somewhat darker of soul than O’Brian’s. But the parallels are clear.

    Maugham is magnificent.

  11. Just finished Painted Veil and found your blog entry. I saw the movie long ago and thought it excellent. Beautifully shot, perfectly cast and quite moving. {Edward Norton was perfect as Walter.} Wanted to go back and read the book and an unexpected vacation provided a few days of uninterrupted reading. Maugham is really a magnificent writer — moves the story right along. Contemporary fiction can smother with unnecessary details — not so w/ our man Maugham. Geez, he’s good. Think I’ll go revisit some other Maugham classics.

  12. Thanks Madge. Your mention has inspired me to go and pick up one of my other unread Maughams. I have Cakes and Ale, The Magician and Theatre, as well as Collected Stories Vol 1. The first of these, which I understand to be a satire on the literary society of the day, appeals to me most.

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