“Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life”.
– Percy Byshhe Shelley
The book has a riveting opening scene that sets the snappy pace of the story – it feels like a thriller for most parts and is very unlike Maugham’s other novels. With eighty chapters the action moves fast and furious. There is an anecdotal feel to the chapters that are small in length but nonetheless put the reader into the picture.
The bare plot runs like this – Kitty, a vain and pretty girl, bullied by her socially ambitious mother and worried about not making a good match agrees to marry Fane, a socially inept bacteriologist, who is on a quick visit to London from the Far East. Maugham amuses himself by playing on Kitty’s insecurities – a pretty girl who initially refused a few proposals aiming for a more ‘suitable boy’, it suddenly dawns on her that she is past Twenty Five and likely to miss the market. And it is galling for her to note the success of her younger sister who is getting married to a person with a Title. A provincial depiction of the middle class in England at its best.
Unfortunately things may not have changed much even in the age of ‘Speed dating’ v/s the quaint courtship traditions of the bygone Victorian era when the girls were supposed to début at the age of Eighteen in the London Season and get a chance for 3-4 Seasons to find their suitor. This structured approach is supposed to have limited their choice but also prevented many misalliances.
Kitty’s disenchantment with her life grows when she discovers that her husband has practically no standing in Hong Kong’s social circle. And he is indifferent to his position in the society as he chases his work with passion. Possibly bored by the neglect and wanting some attention, she falls for Charles, a rising figure in the local Government who seems to be destined to rise in the Service. That he is already married seems to be of little consequence and she has grand delusions that he will divorce his wife for her love and companionship. Kitty initially assumes that her husband is not aware of her liaison. Eventually she concludes that he has turned a blind eye to it as he cannot let it mar his growth prospects.
Maugham very cruelly and effectively crushes her illusions. Not only is the affair discovered but her husband is able to take the moral high ground by showing to Kitty, the weak and cowardly nature of Charles. He also lets her know his real opinion about her. He had a shrewd idea about Kitty being a silly girl but he still married her since he loved her and expected her to become more mature with passage of time. And then he sets her the challenge of accompanying him to the Cholera affected district in Mainland China. Deserted by her lover and left with no other options, Kitty has to abide by his dictat.
The change of scene is quick and dramatic. Fane quickly immerses himself with the critical work on their arrival in the plague-stricken district. He is ably assisted by Waddington, the British Deputy Commissioner in the district.
This phase of the novel is really ennobling and one of the brighter spots of writing done by Maugham. He begins by showing a fretful Kitty, totally unhappy with the circumstances, being forced to observe life and grow into a mature woman. It is as if life were a kaleidoscope and by turning the patterns a new Kitty emerges.
Waddington is like a ‘fly on the wall’ character who is instinctively kindly towards Kitty. He seems to sense the turmoil she is going through. He also serves the dual purpose of making Kitty realize the true character of her husband and the critical nature & relevance of his work. He accentuates the point that possibly the two are temperamentally an ‘ill-matched’ pair and yet the circumstances have become such that Kitty is forced to discover her potentialities and cope with the situation. It is this masterstroke that crowns her as the central character and the ‘heroine’ of the novel. For once Maugham crafts a sympathetic female character through her.
She finally appreciates her husband’s selflessness and passion for his work. She begins to understand his utter disdain for social standing and the provincialism found in most of the social circles. She even begins to feel warmer towards him and reckons that he meant her no harm by bringing her to such a dangerous place, rather the trip was to force her to face reality. One does not know this for sure because Fane conveniently fades away from the scene.
In the tragic circumstances Maugham sets about to depict that life can still be beautiful and meaningful. Kitty’s assignment with convent run by the nuns to take care of small Chinese children is built realistically – it starts with a desire to make herself useful, shows her initial ineffectiveness with the work before she makes steady progress. Kitty does some good work, without looking for any material reward, definitely for the first time in life.
Maugham continues his play when Fane suddenly dies and in the changed circumstances a pregnant Kitty is forced to return to Hong Kong. Her reputation has been made by this trip and she is warmly received on her return. She is forced by circumstances to spend time at Charles’ home. Her weak moment of passion is done well in true trademark Maugham style. People are complex and may have unknown facets; nonetheless the core of the person rarely, if ever, changes fundamentally.
Quickly Kitty runs away from it all to be with her father in London – the hen-pecked husband who has just lost his domineering wife when he has finally been appointed Chief Justice of Bahamas at the fag-end of his career. Maugham takes a sympathetic turn here by having the husband silently acknowledge his wife’s determination in ensuring that he had a little drive and ambition to reach thus far in life.
And then the end comes – the silliest ever to such a fine story. It irritates one to see a fine story being messed up right at the end. But on the whole Maugham sets out to entertain us on an adventure in the Far East and overall he achieves his goal.
The novel written by Maugham in 1925 is popular and has been made into a movie on three occasions as ‘The Painted Veil’ (1934), ‘The Seventh Sin’ (1957) and ‘The Painted Veil’ (2006).