A walk through Ross

May 30, 2011 at 8:39 pm (Anglophilia, books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011, Travel)

Upon our return from Hereford, we were invited to take a walking tour of Ross on Wye, the pretty market town that was to be our headquarters while we explored the Wye Valley region. You cannot be in Ross for long without hearing about John Kyrle (1637-1724).. Called “the Man of Ross” by Alexander Pope, Kyrle was a wealthy and selfless benefactor whose philanthropy improved immensely the lives of Ross’s inhabitants. His legacy can be found throughout the town.

Kyrle was instrumental in establishing The Prospect, a lovely park overlooking the Wye River:

The Church of St. Mary  the Virgin dates from the early 1300’s. Built on one of the highest points in town, its spire can be seen for miles around:

The Plague Cross commemorates the 315 citizens of Ross who died of the Plague in 1637. The victims were buried in a “plague pit” nearby, at night and without coffins:

Ross has a beautifully preserved Market House. It was built between 1650 and 1654 and replaced an older structure, probably made of wood.

The Market House in 1890

The Markel House as we first saw it, earlier this month

This trip was very much about books, and little Ross on Wye, population just over 10,000 according to 2001 census figures, boasts two independent bookstores, one new and one used.

  In Ross Old Books I found Make Death Love Me, the first novel I ever read by Ruth Rendell.  Lately I’ve been wanting to revisit it, but this wish has been frustrated by the fact that the local library no longer owns it and it’s out of print to boot.    Along with others on the tour, I enjoyed browsing in Rossiter’s. Phil Rickman had told us that he’d dropped several copies of his titles off there recently, so we took full advantage of that fact!     Here’s a short piece on the shop that appeared last month in The Telegraph.

Wyenotccom is a very rich source for information on the Wye Valley. The site features plenty of visuals, including these videos of the May Day celebrations that take place each year on May Hill, a prominent landmark between Gloucester and Ross on Wye:


This map shows the location of Ross on Wye, as well as Hereford, Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Monmouth, and Bristol, all of which were visited by us on this trip. (Click to enlarge.)

If you’re confused as to where the border between Wales and England is, so were we for much of the trip. But as we wove our way through the Welsh border country, we did see signs such as this from time to time:

The first sighting caused me to cry out and clap my hands: a first, and a beautiful new country for us!

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Our first full day in Herefordshire: “This is the real England.”

May 29, 2011 at 7:39 pm (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

“Ancient oaks, the ‘weeds of Herefordshire,’ cover hillsides, their tangled, wild canopies contrasting with regimented apple orchards where farmers ferret away making traditional ciders. Thick hedgerows and verdant river meadows buzz with wildlife. Traffic lights, on the other hand, are an endangered species. Travel, Herefordshire-style, is characterised by hush, not rush….

It’s England’s equivalent of La France Profonde, that deep, undiscovered swathe of France that isn’t Provence, Paris, or the Cote d’Azur. Many say it’s the real France; by the same token, Herefordshire is the real England.

[Roger Thomas in the Herefordshire and Wye Valley Visitor Guide for 2011]

Our first excursion took us through breathtakingly beautiful countryside to the cathedral city of Hereford, where the main attraction is the cathedral.

Not only is this edifice in and of itself spectacular, but housed within it are two priceless artifacts of the Middle Ages: the Mappa Mundi and the Chained Library. These are both housed within the cathedral as special and permanent exhibits. Some excellent preliminary displays help visitors to understand what they’ll be seeing.

The Chained Library in Hereford Cathedral

(In an enlargement of a section of the Mappa Mundi, I was intrigued to find  a visual of this bizarre being: 

I was immediately put in mind of these lines from Shakespeare’s Othello:

And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.

From my researches on Wikipedia, I found that they’re called Blemmyes.)

The Folio Society has recently published a painstaking reproduction of the Mappa Mundi:

“There has been a bishop of Hereford for well over twelve centuries,” intones the guidebook. Ron found inscribed on one section of the cathedrals’ wall a list of bishops beginning in the 600’s. It would be inaccurate to say that the cathedral itself is that ancient. In its current incarnation, the building dates from 1079.

Hereford Cathedral plays a prominent part in The Midwinter of the Spirit. Of especial importance is the shrine of St. Thomas Cantilupe.

The cathedral’s lovely Chapter House Garden was located near the cafe. I liked this life size sculpture in wood. Entitled The Pilgrim, it was made by Ken Smith and placed in the garden in 1996:

On the way to Hereford, Pam told us the story of a young woman who believed that her lover was unfaithful to  her. She killed him, only to find out later that he had been true to her all along. Her ghost supposedly haunts a certain well in the Herefordshire countryside. This is one of many such stories we heard. Often they were told as we traveled from one place to the next and were hard to remember precisely.

We had some time to roam the busy streets of Hereford.As with so many places in England, the past and the present co-exist with ease:


Having read that there was a statue of Elgar somewhere near the cathedral, we stopped at a tourist office and were directed to it. It turned out to be close to the cathedral’s entrance, in the close. We’d been very close to it already.

He is depicted with the Royal Sunbeam bicycle that he called “Mr. Phoebus:”

Here's Ron, thrilled to be so close to one of his favorite composers!

Sir Edward Elgar lived on the outskirts of Hereford from 1904 to 1911. This was one of his most creative periods, and the city is naturally proud of its association with one of England’s greatest composers.

In The Remains of an Altar, Phil Rickman evokes a ghostly of Elgar bicycling through the Malvern Hills.

The cathedral itself is one of the three venues that alternately plays host to the renowned  Three Choirs Festival. The festival will be taking place in Hereford in 2012.

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Oh, what a time we had…

May 26, 2011 at 6:39 pm (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

This trip to Great Britain bestowed so many riches, it is hard to know where to begin. Our journey had three parts. The first consisted of a five day exploration of the Welsh border country; the second centered on Crimefest in Bristol. The third was all about Agatha Christie.

More on all of this, when the images settle and compose themselves into some sort of coherent order.

Appropriately, upon our return we were given joyful greeting (or, at least the feline version of same) by…

Miss Marple

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‘There’s just something about the idea of having your head lopped off that really gets to people.’ – Savages, by Don Winslow

May 10, 2011 at 1:52 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

   Savages is written in the kind of staccato,  punchy prose that I usually avoid. Add to that the full measure of explicit sex and even more explicit violence, and you may well ask, why is  she reading this book? Fact is, Don Winslow was originally slated to fill the role of Toastmaster at the upcoming Crimefest. His books have been receiving great reviews, so I figured that since I was going to see the author in person, now was the time to read one of his novels. I chose Savages, the latest, partly because it’s substantially shorter that his other books. (I know, I really have to stop eliminating books from my to-read list solely due to their length. Gad sakes – I might have missed the sublime Wolf Hall!)

A quintessential novel of Southern California – “SoCal,” Savages was a wild ride, for sure. The main action involves a surprisingly appealing trio of drug dealers. Ben is a brilliant, deeply educated environmentalist who uses the extremely lucrative drug business to fund his high minded concerns. Former Navy SEAL Chon is street smart and savvy, a veteran of this criminal underworld. And Ophelia is the young woman they share, a free spirit who lives with her mother, a woman who is hooked on the usual California cocktail of self-help and self-actualization schemes and whose idea of a great gift for her daughter is to finance a “boob job” that Ophelia was unaware she needed and did not especially want. (She tells her mother rather wistfully that she’d been hoping for a bicycle.)

As so often happens with material like this, when it’s being handled by a genuine talent like Don Winslow, the sex and violence are interspersed with bursts of hilarity and the occasional apt and ironic observation on the vagary of human nature – and sometimes, something more:

We had for a brief time a civilization that clung to a thin strip of land between the ocean and the desert.

Water was our problem, too much of it on one side too little on the other, but it didn’t stop us. We built houses, highways, hotels, shopping malls, condo complexes, paring lots, parking structures, schools, and stadiums….

We built temples to our fantasies–film studios, amusement parks, crystal cathedrals, megachurches–and flocked to them.

We went to the beach, rode the waves, and poured our waste into the water we said we loved.

We reinvented ourselves every day, remade our culture, locked ourselves in gated communities, we ate healthy food, we gave up smoking, we lifted our faces while avoiding the sun, we had our skin peeled, out lines removed, our fat sucked away like our unwanted babies, we defied aging and death.

Wee made gods of  wealth and health.

A religion of narcissism.

In the end, we worshipped only ourselves.

In the end, it wasn’t enough.

Well, gosh…

This intensely bitter and lyrical effusion, which, trust me, seemed to burst onto the page from nowhere – but not really, given the insanely perverse universe  described by the author…at any rate, it reminded me of two things. First, the explanation for the nature of the population of San Francisco in the late 1800’s offered by Lord Bryce in The American Commonwealth:

‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with, or suppression of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the union….

That scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulated in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constituent of the population.’

A different time and place, I know, but it’s that part about the wilderness of the time passing into the soul of the people that somehow resonates.

Secondly, I’m reminded of the great tradition of California crime writers: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and my personal favorite, Ross MacDonald. I believe that Don Winslow belongs in that line.

Shortly after I finished this novel, we were informed that Don Winslow would be unable to attend Crimefest. I was sorry to hear that, and glad that I had read Savages.

Don Winslow

A film of Savages is in the works, to be directed by Oliver Stone.

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My son’s Mother’s Day tribute to his beautiful wife

May 8, 2011 at 8:33 pm (Family)

I just have to share this:

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Recently discussed by the Usual Suspects: Dissolution by C.J. Sansom, and In a Dark House by Deborah Crombie

May 8, 2011 at 2:34 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

I’m currently planning for two upcoming trips, as a result of which I have fallen behind in regard to the composing of blog entries. I did want to make note of two recent meetings of the Usual Suspects.

C.J. Sansom

In February, Carol led us in a discussion of Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. This is the first novel in what has gone on to become an acclaimed series set in the reign of Henry VIII. In Dissolution, we are introduced to Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer with a spinal deformity who becomes the preferred emissary of Thomas Cromwell. I read Dissolution when it came out in 2003, and like other readers and reviewers, found myself riveted by this vivid recreation of a turbulent time in English history.

The selection of a work of historical crime fiction places a special burden on a discussion leader. In the case of Dissolution, many of us have a general knowledge of the Tudor period, especially as regards the reign of Elizabeth I and her famous – or infamous – father. We can recite the drill regarding the six wives of Henry VIII: divorced (Catherine of Aragon), beheaded (Anne Boleyn), died (Jane Seymour), divorced (Anne of Cleves), beheaded (Katherine Howard). survived (Catherine Parr). But the story is far more complicated than that, particularly as regards the religious upheavals. Carol did a great job providing background for the novel.

I had planned to skim Dissolution in order to refresh my memory, but I became so absorbed in the story that I ended up reading it word for word, and therefore not finishing it, as I hadn’t allowed sufficient time to do so. I found myself thinking, Now I remember why I was so mesmerized  by this book! (I look forward to reading the latest in this series, Heartstone. It has received outstanding reviews.)

Inevitably, the subject of Wolf Hall came up. Hilary Mantel’s vivid evocation of the same era is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. But Sansom’s work is likewise persuasive and engaging. It was fun comparing the two novels.

I love both of these cover images:


The second of these features St. Francis in Meditation, painted in 1635 by the great Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran:


  In a Dark House by Deborah Crombie was the April selection for the Suspects. This was the third novel I’d read in Crombie’s series featuring Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. Many people consider Dreaming of the Bones to be in the way of becoming a modern classic of crime literature. I read it shortly after its 1997 publication, and while I don’t remember the specifics, I do recall Crombie’s evocation of Rupert Brooke, one of the great poets of the First World War. I also read and enjoyed Like Water for Stone. So I was pleased to be returning to the works of this author, and indeed, In a Dark House, a tale of arson, intrigue, kidnapping, and murder, did not disappoint.

A quick word about Like Water for Stone: it’s set in Cheshire, childhood home of Duncan Kincaid. The novel features much fascinating lore about canals and canal boats, also called narrow boats. I’d  not been aware that there exists a means whereby these boats navigate from one side of a river to another while suspended more than a hundred feet above the river valley! The structure that allows them to perform this seemingly impossible feat is called the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct; it carries the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee. Here’s a video essay:

Mike, our discussion leader, provided background on the author. Deborah Crombie is a Texan with a lifelong passion for all things English (and some of us can definitely empathize with that!). I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Ms Crombie in person twice: once at Bouchercon in 2008 and also at the National Book Festival in 2007. Both times she was artless and completely engaging.

With Washington Post crime fiction reviewer at the National Book Festival in 2007

At Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore, standing between Rhys Bowen, left, and Louise Penny

Crombie is one of several American writers who set their crime fiction in the UK. The question inevitably arises as to whether the characters and their context seem authentically British. In particular, I look for small linguistic indicators. I don’t mean “boot” instead of trunk or “lift” instead of elevator. Rather, I refer to the use of “cheers” to sign off on a phone conversation, the tendency to conclude a sentence with the interrogative “yeah?” instead of “okay?” and use of  the expression “straight away” in place of “right away.”

For this reader, Crombie’s books have a distinctly British feel to them – more so than do the works of Elizabeth George, who, for my money, tries too hard and too earnestly to achieve the same effect. Likewise, Crombie’s characters have a more real and immediate appeal. I really enjoyed the child care issues that kept popping up in the midst of the action. Kincaid and James, devoted parents of Kit and Toby, are not yet married but are nonetheless in a deeply committed relationship. Their children’s situation is somewhat convoluted and was the cause of my only complaint, albeit a mild one. You would have to have been following the series pretty faithfully to  be fully cognizant of the niceties involved here.

The title ‘In a Dark House’ comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Why have you suffer’d me to be imprison’d, / Kept in a dark house…” As with so many lines from Shakespeare, these disturb, even if one is ignorant of the context. Crombie also placed quotations at the head of each chapter. Most are from Dickens. I particularly liked this one from Martin Chuzzlewit:

‘But we never knows wot’s hidden in each other’s hearts; and if we had  glass winders there, we’d need keep the shetters up, some on us, I do assure you!’

Marge, my “partner in crime,” is a great fan of the Duncan Kincaid / Gemma James series. Her favorite is A Finer End, with its evocative Glastonbury setting. This will be my next Crombie “read.”

Deborah Crombie, sporting a stylish new "do" of which we Suspects heartily aprroved!

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‘Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life.’ – A discussion of Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil

May 4, 2011 at 6:21 pm (Book clubs, books)

This photo, which graces the cover of THE SECRET LIVES OF SOMERSET MAUGHAM, is the only one I've been able to find of the author as a young man.

While I was in the midst of a Somerset Maugham obsession triggered by Selina Hastings’s superb biography, I mentioned that I thought The Painted Veil would be an excellent choice for The Literary Ladies Book Club. It was short, a fast read, and possessed of an intriguing setting. Above all, the characters were real and immediate; you cared about what fate awaited them. Friday night we “Ladies” took up Maugham’s novel of the British colonial experience in China. As the discussion leader, I provided the background information. But it was also important to me to explain how I had come to read a novel of which I had barely heard by an author in whom I had not, until a few months ago, been especially interested. I had been working at Central one evening when a customer came in and requested a work by Somerset Maugham. The library did not own it; as I set about requesting it for  her through interlibrary loan. she told me that the members of her book group had been reading their way through the authors’ oeuvre. They were loving the task. I remembered reading laudatory reviews of Selina Hastings’s new biography. I hadn’t read anything by Maugham in years. Perhaps it was time for a second look?

I began with The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham and found myself caught up at once in this extraordinary story. Maugham was born in Paris in 1874.  His  idyllic childhood as a pampered youngest son  was shattered by his mother’s untimely death. Maugham was only eight years old at the time; he was haunted by this cruel loss for the rest of his life. As Hastings’s narrative took up the subject of Maugham’s adulthood, I turned to his works. His biographer had wonderful things to say about a novel I’d never heard of, Mrs. Craddock. I read and loved it. Then I moved on to the short stories. Maugham wrote hundreds of them, and the best among them are well worth reading. They’re models of economical storytelling as well as vivid re-creations of a bygone era.  Finally I came to The Painted Veil.

  Initially I was disappointed by this novel. I had anticipated the leisurely, late Victorian style of Mrs. Craddock. This was nowhere to be found in The Painted Veil, a work that almost seemed to have been written by a different person. But I quickly got pulled into the story of Kitty Fane, a spoiled and frivolous young woman whose function in life, at least at the outset of this tale, seemed to be primarily decorative. Kitty has spurned one suitor too many when all of a sudden her younger sister gets engaged. Doris was not considered nearly as pretty or desirable as Kitty; nevertheless, she’s on her way to the altar. Mon Dieu – Quoi faire! Kitty says yes to the next proposal she receives. It is from a shy, awkward young man, a government scientist who’s been quietly but fervently in love with her for quite some time. His name is Walter Fane, and he’s been posted to Hong Kong. To Kitty’s great relief, he’ll be whisking her off to that far flung station in advance of Doris’s nuptials. She hasn’t thought beyond the deliverance provided by this timely change in her status. She’s given no thought to what’s in store for her and for Walter, once they reach China. In fact, both their lives are about to be profoundly changed.

I had prepared for the group members a sheet containing some definitions of what might be unfamiliar terms. These were followed by a number of discussion questions I had formulated. As frequently happens in these situations, the best insights came, for the most part, from elsewhere. Almost inevitably, the discussion centered on the character of Kitty, and the way in which the novel charts her growth and change. In the Maugham biography, Selina Hastings says this:

The portrait of Kitty Fane is one of Maugham’s finest fictional achievements. As with Bertha Craddock more than twenty years before, he displays an extraordinary empathy, an ability to create a woman as seen not from a man’s perspective but from that of the woman herself; he completely inhabits and possesses Kitty, knows her from the inside, down to the very nerves and fiber of her being.

[From this point forward, spoilers will occur.]

Kitty flings herself into an affair with Charlie Townsend, an up and coming (and married) official in the provincial government. When Walter becomes cognizant of his wife’s infidelity, he reacts in a way that totally catches her – and the reader – off guard. It seems that he has volunteered to serve in a region called Mei-tan-fu, where a cholera epidemic is raging. He gives Kitty an ultimatum: either she goes there with him or he will institute divorce proceedings against her. Among the consequences of this action, Townsend will be named correspondent, and his career in the foreign service would almost certainly be derailed. At the same time, Walter offers his wife a way out of this dilemma: If she can show that Charlie would also be willing to get a divorce, then he, Walter, will allow Kitty to initiate proceedings and thus avoid a scandal.

This is the outcome Kitty longs for anyway. She rushes to tell Townsend the news, and promptly has all her illusions about him shattered. Among other statements along the “be reasonable” lines, he has this to say about his wife Dorothy and their children:

‘Well, I have got my boys to think about haven’t I? And naturally I don’t want to make her unhappy. We’ve always got on very well together. She’s been an awfully good wife to me, you know.’

Long story short: divorce is out of the question. Kitty now has no choice but to accompany Walter to what she assumes will be the Hell on Earth of Mei-tan-fu. And indeed once there, she does witness some terrible suffering. But she also witnesses courageous and self-sacrificing behavior, on Walter’s part and on the part of a community of French nuns caring for the sick, for the orphans, and for unwanted female offspring threatened with neglect, abandonment, or even death. And Kitty is befriended by the only other Westerner in Mei-tan-fu; Waddington, the Customs official.

I like the way that Rose placed Kitty’s situation in context with the that of the other characters at that point in the novel. Everyone, she observed, had their life’s path mapped out for them. Walter will treat the afflicted while desperately searching for a cure for cholera; Charlie Townsend will continue to ascend the career ladder; the nuns are completely devoted a to a mission they believe to be ordained by God. Even Waddington, the old China hand with his Manchu concubine, knows that his life will continue pretty much as it already is. But Kitty, looking before her, sees nothing but alien and unknowable future.

(Rose was of the opinion that Maugham piles too many momentous events on toward the novel’s conclusion, rendering it somewhat lopsided where  structure is concerned. This hadn’t occurred to me, but I see her point.)

Amidst all the horror and dislocation, Kitty is offered a lifeline in the form of a chance to assist the nuns in their work at the convent. For the first time in her life, she has the experience of being useful and needed. Her outlook, and her life, begin to alter irrevocably. She travels the distance from indifference to compassion. It is a line that, once crossed, can never be re-crossed.

One of the most important lessons Kitty learns involves judging people by who they are and not according to preconceived notions regarding their ethnic origins. In fact, we were all shocked and offended by the presence in the novel of brutal and cruel comments disparaging the Chinese in accord with the racial stereotypes rampant among the British (and not only the British) in the early part of the twentieth century. (The Painted Veil came out in 1925.) An uncomfortable question arose: were these the author’s own sentiments, or was he attempting to reflect realistically the prejudices of the times? Or both? All I could offer in response was that in Hastings’s telling of his life, Maugham comes across as an enlightened individual. He was certainly flawed – he would have been the last person to deny it. He was a complex, secretive, and subtle individual, but at the same time he was extremely empathetic.

In 1924, Maugham wrote a story set in Kuala Lumpur and called “The Letter.” In it, a woman shoots to death a man who she claims was attempting to rape her. Maugham frequently made use of actual people and events in his fiction, and this story is a good example of the way in which he used material from real life. In 1911, in Kuala Lumpur, a woman named Ethel Proudlock, an Englishman’s wife, shot and killed a mine manager named William Steward. A full blown scandal followed hard on the heels of this sensational murder. It’s a fascinating case of true crime, and  the context, British colonial governance in what was then called Malaya, lends great interest to the proceedings. Eric Lawlor wrote a book about the incident called Murder on the Verandah

I quote from the back jacket copy:

The event scandalized polite society, and revealed the suffocating nature of expatriate life in Malaya, where the British ruled with an unhealthy blend of suburban aspiration and gross insensitivity to the native population. Petty, hypocritical and terribly unhappy, the British never counted Malaya as home and spent their time wishing they weren’t there.

“Gross insensitivity” was not the worst of it. Here’s an excerpt from a letter that appeared in The Mail in 1927 beneath the headline, “Coolies Flogged To Death:”

‘I have heard today…from a source the reliability of which is quite beyond doubt that many cruelties are perpetrated against Chinese coolies…employed [clearing] the jungles of Pahang and Johore. These unfortunate “sinkehs” – virtual slaves – are said to be squeezed in every possible way and their life is such a hell that not a few endeavour to abscond. Should one of these unfortunates be recaptured he is brought back …says my informant, and then almost invariably flogged to death.’

It’s probably not unreasonable to assume that some of the same conditions prevailed in China as well.

In preparation for this discussion, I had asked group members to view the 2006 film starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.   Some interesting changes were made in the cinema version. First of all, the film shows a passion between Kitty and Walter being ignited by the peril they’re both facing in Mei-tan-fu. Of course, this makes Walter’s death all the more poignant. But what happens in the book is more subtle. Kitty does gain an understanding and a respect for her husband. She is genuinely touched by his death. But he had never become the object of her desire.

Charlie Townsend, on the other hand, had been just that for Kitty. After the momentous events in Mei-tan-fu, she thinks she’s put their affair behind her. Feeling that her values have been profoundly altered, she returns to Hong Kong for a brief stay before embarking for London. During the Hong Kong leg of her journey, Charlie’s wife Dorothy prevails on Kitty to stay with them. When Charlie finds himself alone with her, he subjects her to powerful pressure and ultimately succeeds in seducing her. This is the last thing Kitty wanted, and she feels shamed and humiliated. It’s as if she has slid back into the thoughtless flighty ways of her former self.

This crucially important seduction scene does not appear in the film. Instead, Kitty is shown running into Townsend years later on a London street. She is with her child, who had been conceived at some point during her China sojourn. Townsend makes overtures of friendship, which Kitty rebuffs. Thus, she appears to have attained a virtuous existence, almost a kind of saintliness that carries with it an immunity to the advances of one of the most unremitting cads I’ve encountered in fiction. In the book, her path is stonier and less clear.

Marge made an astute observation concerning the  landscape of China and its effect on Kitty. The film is beautifully photographed; the Chinese countryside does indeed look gorgeous. But in the novel. Maugham makes us see the transforming effect that the landscape has on Kitty:

The bungalow stood half way down a steep hill and from her window she saw the narrow river below her and opposite, the city. Tthe dawn had just broken and from the river rose a white mist shrouding the junks that lay moored close to one another like peas in a pod. There were hundreds of them,, and they were silent, mysterious in that ghostly light, and you had a feeling that their crews lay under an enchantment, for it seemd that it was not sleep, but something strange and terrible, that held them so still and mute.

The morning drew on and the sun touched the mist so that it shone whitely like  the ghost of snow on a dying star. Though on the river it was light so that you could discern palely the lines the lines of the crowded junks and the thick forest of their masts, in front it was a shining wall the eye could not pierce. But suddenly from that white  cloud a tall, grim, and massive bastion emerged. It seemed not merely to be made visible by the all-discovering sun but rather to rise out of nothing at the touch of a magic wand. It towered, the stronghold of a cruel and barbaric race, over the river. But the magician who built worked swiftly and now a fragment of colored wall crowned the bastion; in a moment, out of the mist, looming vastly and touched here and there by a yellow ray of sun, there was seen a cluster of green and yellow roofs. Huge they seemed and you could make out no pattern; the order, if order there was, escaped you; wayward and extravagant, but of an unimaginable richness. There was no fortress, nor a temple, but the magic palace of some emperor of the gods where no man might enter. It was too airy, fantastic, and unsubstantial to be the work of human hands; it was the fabric of a dream.

The tears ran down Kitty’s face and she gazed, her hands clasped to her breast and her mouth, for she was breathless, open a little. She had never felt so light of heart and it seemed to her as though her body were a shell that lay at her feet and she pure spirit. Here was Beauty. She took it as the believer takes in his mouth the wafer which is God.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, for a movie to convey the profound inward response to an outward stimulus that Maugham describes here. (You’ll understand why I could not help quoting this entire passage, the writing is so exquisite.)


Rose became deeply interested in this novel and its author. She did something that it would never have occurred to me to do: she googled ” W. Somerset Maugham” and “quotes.” The results were delightful! Some examples:

‘At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.’
‘Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.’
‘Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit.’

Click here for more.

Rose could hardly wait to tell me of another discovery she had made. Derek Paravicini was born extremely prematurely in 1979. While an infant, he was given intensive oxygen therapy; as a result, he is now blind and learning disabled. But he also has absolute pitch and is an amazingly gifted musician. He is also the great-grandson of W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham had a long life, dying in 1964 at the age of 91. Still, one wishes he’d had the chance to know his extraordinary descendant.

At the close of the discussion, Rose asked me to recommend some of Maugham’s stories. I suggested the following:

Before the Party
The Yellow Streak
The Letter
Giulia Lazzari (from Ashenden, or the British Agent)

All of the above can be found in Collected Stories by W. Somerset Maugham, published by Everyman Library. “The Lotus Eater,” one of the author’s most graceful and poignant tales, is unfortunately not included in the above collection. However, it is available online.
Should you be interested, here’s the content of the (rather informal) handout I presented to the discussion group:

Questions & observations
Tiffin:  An early light lunch; comes from Indian usage
Topee – pith helmet
Taking silk: ‘To take silk’ is said of a barrister who has been appointed to a King’s or Queen’s Counsel (KC or QC) because he or she then exchanges a stuff gown for a silk one.
1.    Title of the novel comes from an untitled sonnet by Shelley, which begins: “Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life”.
2.    Why does Maugham open the narrative the way he does?
3.    What are your initial impressions of Kitty & her family? What about their snobbery & class consciousness? Why does Kitty marry Walter? At the time of their marriage, what’s her opinion of him? What is your opinion of him?
4.    What is the nature of the ultimatum with which Walter presents Kitty? Keep in mind that the divorce laws – at least, in Britain – were far more restrictive than they are now.  The Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 (United Kingdom) updated Great Britain’s divorce legislation.
Apart from the Roman Catholic Church, Church of England and its associated Mothers Union, there was broad support for divorce law liberalisation, as this legislation had not been significantly amended since the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, when adjudication had been removed from church courts and placed before secular courts.  Nevertheless, there was profound gender asymmetry. While men could divorce women on the basis of adultery, women were required to prove that their male partners had undertaken adultery and additional offences, such as incest, sodomy, cruelty (roughly equivalent to domestic violence) and other possible reasons.
5.    What’s your impression of Waddington? Does he intuit that Kitty & Townsend had been lovers?
6.    Kitty’s view of the Chinese? Pp. 104, 119, 122, 139. Are these only Kitty’s prejudices, or also Maugham’s? Or is he just reflecting the sentiments of the British in general at the time?
7.    ‘defiant salad consumption’ – p.105. Is this a turning point?
8.    Mother Superior – pp.126-127. Kitty begins to change because of her association with the convent. Was this believable to you as the reader? What about the nuns’ attitude toward her?
9.    Confrontation with Walter – p.130
10.    “Baby tower” – p.144
11.    Kitty learns about Waddington’s concubine – pp. 145, 153. (This was NOT the thing to do in that time & place.)
12.    Kitty’s pregnancy. What does she tell Walter, & why? What does she later tell Charlie?
13.    Why does Kitty feel that it’s so urgent that Walter forgive her?
14.    Walter’s shocking death – pp. 183-196
15.    Is it strange that Kitty goes back to her work at the convent, just as before?
16.    Kitty realizes that no one cares about her – She is alone – p.202
17.    What was your reaction to Charlie’s seduction of Kitty? This is a major divergence from the 2006 film.
18.    What about Kitty’s reconciliation with her father, after her mother’s death? Why does she feel it’s so vital to make a new start with him, in a new place?
19.    How did you find Maugham’s prose  style in this novel? There are some beautiful descriptive passages: pp. 96 & 97. Did you note his frequent use of the pronoun “you?”

In my opinion, The Painted Veil was a great choice for a book discussion group. And I have a final word on the author. Somerset Maugham was modest about his talents. He made no further claim for himself than that he was a good storyteller. My feeling is that he was better than good – he was great. He could write beautifully; moreover, where basic aspects of the human condition are concerned. he could display an insight that was both profound and compassionate.

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