The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham

I’ve been reading Somerset Maugham since high school and always had an affection for his works. The characters are fascinating. The locales are exotic. The plots seem real enough to be more like reporting. Somehow I never picked up this book and wasn’t even familiar with the title. It’s been made into a movie twice, once with Garbo and in 2006 with Naomi Watts as Kitty, the main character. I can’t picture either and I’m glad I didn’t see either movie before reading it. There are times I was glad I saw the movie first, especially with books like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. The films were good representations of the novels and reading them was like watching the movie with extra detail.

The Painted Veil involves a woman in England between the wars. She has been putting off marriage for several years and accepts a proposal from a government bacteriologist/MD named Walter Fane. She’s motivated when her younger sister gets engaged and she feels pressured to get married by her mother and the fear of aging out of a time when she’ll stay as attractive to men as she’s been since being “presented”. He’s introverted and distant and she doesn’t feel any real attraction for him. He takes her to Hong Kong where he’s accepted a government posting and Kitty starts an affair with a married man.

Most after this point would act as a spoiler, which I won’t do to you. There are a few things I needed to look into. The word “tiffin” was one. I found it on WikiPedia which defines it as: “Tiffin is an Indian/English word for a light midday meal (luncheon).¬†When used in place of the word “lunch”, it does not necessarily mean a light meal.” It’s one of those Raj imports and I’m surprised Tolkein didn’t manage to incorporate it with “elevensies” and other meals Hobbits hate to miss.

A key reference near the end of the book is a poem by Oliver Goldsmith. It’s not one I was familiar with called Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog. At a key moment Walter quotes the last line. Here’s the poem, again to save you from looking it up yourself:

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man,
Of whom the world might say
That still a godly race he ran,
Whene’er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad,
When he put on his clothes.

And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp and hound,
And curs of low degree.

This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man.

Around from all the neighbouring streets
The wondering neighbours ran,
And swore the dog had lost his wits,
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad
To every Christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad,
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied:
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.

So there you have someone so morally corrupt that when bitten by a mad dog it’s not the man who dies but the dog. Given what Walter pushes Kitty to do in the book the poem makes perfect sense.

Excellent book. In the intro of the edition I read Maugham says he approached the writing differently. Rather than imagining a character and letting that character move through events, in this book he imagined the story and found model characters to fit the story. His first book Of Human Bondage had autobiographical elements, and in many of his stories and novels he seems to be taking part in the story as an observer. In this one as more of a fly on the wall. It was realistic enough that he had to change the book twice due to defamation suits, once to change the names of the main characters and again to move it out of Hong Kong. The litigants are dead, the original was restored.