The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham


My friend Molly mentioned listening to this book and was wowed by the beautiful language. I had recently told her about the book by Tan Twan Eng, The House of Doors, that both reminded me of Somerset Maugham books and had him as a character. So I  listened to it myself and once again fell in love with Somerset Maugham.

The mother of the beautiful Kitty, the main character, has hopes that her daughter will make a great match; the plain younger daughter seemed unlikely to do so. When Doris landed a titled man, Kitty hastily agreed to marry the smitten, shy Walter. He was a pathologist who worked in Hong Kong, and the two left before Doris’s wedding.

Kitty had little in common with Walter and disdained his love for her. Within weeks of arrival in Hong Kong she began an affair with a dashing and ambitious assistant colonial governor. When Walter discovered the affair after two years, he said he would name Charlie in a divorce proceeding unless she accompanied him (Walter) to a remote region where cholera was raging. She had no choice after she learned that Charlie wouldn’t leave his wife and give up his ambitions for her.

In the village she made friends with the nuns who were caring for children and she endured the disdain of Walter who is a hero to all in the village. The nuns saw Kitty as brave for her actions and believed she was there to support the beloved Walter. She turned up pregnant, Walter died of cholera, and she returned to Hong Kong to the belief of all there that she is a saint.

Early in the story Maugham skewered the unpleasant ambitious mother and the frivolous Kitty with disdain. Once Kitty had been humiliated and proven wrong about Charlie, she gradually became a more complete character capable of introspection. She was brave in the face of the epidemic and overcame her squeamishness about the Chinese orphans and cared about her work there. She recognized that while she was guilty for her part in the marriage, she expressed anger at Walter for his role. When she returned to Hong Kong, she was uncomfortable with the respect she received. And she was humiliated to find herself responsive to Charlie’s lust for her.

When she arrived home in London, her mother had died and she found her father was relieved from the oppression of the overbearing woman. He had accepted a post in the Caribbean and she begged to go with him to give him the love and support he lacked in the past.

Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil, many editions, orig. published 1925, 246 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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