‘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.


  1. Carol said,

    THE LETTER was made into a movie starring Bette Davis, which I remember as quite good.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Carol. We actually recorded the film a few months ago but haven’t gotten around to watching it yet.

  2. Barbara said,

    Oh how I love this book which was infinitely preferrable to the movie (an aside here – did you know that Naomi Watts and Liev Schrieber (portraying Kitty and Charlie) were married to each other at one time?) Others that I have recommended the book to were not as enamored as I….disliking the racist ovetones. I feel that the “language” offers us a glimpse into how people felt and spoke at the time – what is that quote about the past and how people do things differently there?

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for this, Barbara. And yes – someone at the discussion told me about Naomi Watts & Liev Schreiber. For myself, I found Edward Norton much more attractive. I thought he did the suffering soul thing extremely effectively.(He’s from around here, so we locals always root for him!)

      The quote you allude to is from L.P Hartley’s novel The Go-Between (which was made into a great movie starring Julie Christie): “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

  3. Eliz Brooks said,

    Thanks for all this wonderful insight to the book we are watching the film tonight and discussing the book you have wetted my appetite

  4. Angela Duffy said,

    I have read the book and seen the film. The film changed the ending to show Kitty had learned his lesson, cads are bad news. The author on the other hand did illustrated feelings can be modified but not totally changed.
    Kitty at no point saw object of desire in front of her, but she did learn to respect and hold him in some esteem by the end of the book, perhaps a more realistic less comfortable ending.
    An interesting film a great book.

  5. cambridgeforecast said,

    How do you interpret the Shelley lines about “the painted veil” after which the novel by Maugham is named.

    Is there an accepted understanding of these lines from the poem?

    Does it mean don’t try or hope to penetrate too deeply into people’s delusions?


  6. Rox said,

    This is my favorite book. It can take me to tears every time I read it. Its story is both breathtaking and humbling. Maugham writes so beautifully.

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