REVIEW: “The Painted Veil” by W. Somerset Maugham

The Painted Veil

W. Somerset Maugham
Heron Books, London 1967

CHALLENGE(S): To Be Read Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge

Finished 31 Jan 2010

This one has been on my “To Be Read” list for quite a while, hence its inclusion in the TBR Challenge. I also happen to own a copy of the recent movie adaptation, which I watched directly afterwards (although, of course, I’d already seen it twice). Actually, the movie came out around the time of my birthday, and I wanted to see it but was eventually coerced into seeing something else instead. I knew from the moment that I saw the movie poster (the same as the book cover shown on the left) that this was going to be a story I’d enjoy, and I was right.

Essentially, Painted Veil is the story of Kitty and Walter Fane. Having married the besotted Walter in an attempt to escape her overbearing mother, Kitty feels trapped and unhappy with her lot in life. It seems inevitable, then, that when handsome and charming (and married!) Charles Townsend comes into the picture, Kitty is easily swept off her feet into a scandalous extra-marital affair. As the book begins, Walter has just discovered her infidelity. To get revenge, he volunteers to go and act as a physician in a cholera-stricken village and insists that Kitty either secure Townsend’s promise to marry her or accompany him into the heart of the epidemic. Kitty is horrified to find that Charles has no intention of divorcing his wife for her, and is forced to travel with her estranged husband into a foreign and terrifying world.

The most interesting aspect of this story for me was Kitty’s development as a character. To begin with, she’s spoiled, selfish and lacking in compassion. She doesn’t see why she shouldn’t get exactly what she wants, and doesn’t mind using other people to do it. By the end of the novel, she has grown a great deal as a person; she hasn’t exactly reformed, but she’s aware of what she’s doing and is making an active effort to be considerate and compassionate to others. This is more clearly emphasized in the movie ending, which differs from the book insofar as it has (spoilers!) Kitty and Walter actually falling in love and, when she returns to Hong Kong after Walter’s death of cholera, Kitty ignores Townsend completely when she meets him again. The novel is less clear cut about it – Walter still dies, but while Kitty comes to respect him and regard him as a worthy object of affection, she does not in fact love him, and she quickly falls back under Townsend’s spell when she returns (albeit to her own self-disgust). Her transition from shallow socialite to a more well-rounded, compassionate human being is shown in the way she reacts to her mother’s death and her plans to make a new life with her widowed father back in England.

I have to confess that I liked the movie ending better; so much more emotionally satisfying to see Kitty resist Charles at the last! However, the book has its merits as well, so I think that both can be appreciated on their own terms.

I was intrigued most especially by the discussion of religion that was intermingled with the narrative. Kitty’s lack of faith was explored without judgment, and I enjoyed some of Maugham’s pontifications on philosophy and life after death. I did find some of the author’s assumptions about women and the treatment of the Chinese a little bit offensive – acceptable as a representation of attitudes in their time, perhaps, but a trifle irritating nevertheless. “Wounded vanity can make a woman more vindictive than a lioness robbed of her cubs” indeed!

Nonetheless, these small faults aside The Painted Veil is a charming read and a book which I will undoubtedly return to several times with great enjoyment, and the movie is really quite beautiful; the cinematography alone makes it worth a watch. A true classic!


  1. February 5th, 2010

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