Yet again – and probably for the last time, I present a talk on Somerset Maugham and The Painted Veil

August 27, 2013 at 11:25 pm (Book clubs, books)

the-painted-veil-cover-31  And so it was off once again to Hanover PA, this time for a Somerset Maugham Festival of sorts, focusing on the author’s life, and works, and in particular, the novel The Painted Veil.

secretlives1   So, this being my third discussion of this novel – and my fourth reading of it –  was there anything more to be gleaned from yet another Somerset Maugham immersion experience? Amazingly, there was. It’s not so much that I unearthed any new information, but rather that facts already known to me took on a slightly different coloration. This was in part due to my revisiting Selina Hastings’s The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, a masterful recounting of the long and eventful life of a singularly fascinating and gifted individual.

Once again, while revisiting the story of Maugham’s abruptly destroyed childhood happiness, I felt pangs of empathy for the lonely, bewildered boy he must have been. Ted Morgan, another Maugham biographer, likens the writer to “… one of Dickens’ youthful heroes who are tempered by misfortune at an early age.”

I can hardly believe that the two other times I’ve led discussions of The Painted Veil, I’ve made no mention of the one novel by Maugham that has most consistently made it onto lists of greatest novels of the twentieth century: Of Human Bondage. It’s been years – decades, actually – since I read this book, and I was surprised to find, when reading a summary of the plot, that it contained so many autobiographical elements especially, in its early chapters. Here’s what Random House says of it:

It is very difficult for a writer of my generation, if he is honest, to pretend indifference to the work of Somerset Maugham,” wrote Gore Vidal. “He was always so entirely there.”
Originally published in 1915, Of Human Bondage is a potent expression of the power of sexual obsession and of modern man’s yearning for freedom. This classic bildungsroman tells the story of Philip Carey, a sensitive boy born with a clubfoot who is orphaned and raised by a religious aunt and uncle. Philip yearns for adventure, and at eighteen leaves home, eventually pursuing a career as an artist in Paris. When he returns to London to study medicine, he meets the androgynous but alluring Mildred and begins a doomed love affair that will change the course of his life. There is no more powerful story of sexual infatuation, of human longing for connection and freedom.
“Here is a novel of the utmost importance,” wrote Theodore Dreiser on publication. “It is a beacon of light by which the wanderer may be guided. . . . One feels as though one were sitting before a splendid Shiraz of priceless texture and intricate weave, admiring, feeling, responding sensually to its colors and tones.”

In England, Of Human Bondage was not an immediate hit. The country was one year into the First World War, and the novel was deemed too grim for the times. But in America, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Before long, similar acclaim appeared in Britain.

(I mentioned that one of my few vivid memories of this novel is Maugham’s description of Mildred’s complexion as possessing a greenish tinge. A member of the Hanover audience commented that there’s a type of anemia that can give rise to this phenomenon.)

As the First World War got under way in 1914, Maugham was already too old to enlist as a soldier. But he was able to serve in France and Belgium in the Ambulance Corp, work for which he was well suited, with his medical degree and fluent knowledge of the French language. He was then recruited by British intelligence. For this work, he was based primarily in Switzerland, though he later did a stint in Russia. The work required that he be both self-effacing and cunning.  Once again, he seemed ideal suited for the job. (Observing how much Maugham enjoyed being immersed in espionage, Lord Kenneth Clark commented: “I suppose he liked the light that it shed on human nature.”

ashenden2  Maugham distilled this experience, with its numerous subtle aspects and its tendency to be at once suspenseful and tedious, into a series of stories that comprise a volume called Ashenden, or the British Agent. Once again, I lamented the fact that this book remains out of print. These stories are riveting and not at all dated. Today, technology has provided us with new and astonishing ways to convey information and to carry out surveillance, but the moral conundrums that are ever present in the so-called ‘secret world’ remain essentially the same. (In a post entitled “Somerset Maugham: the great teller of tales,” I have more to say about Ashenden and some of Maugham’s other stories.)

In 1917, Maugham married Syrie Wellcome. They’d been lovers off and on for several years, and the relationship had already produced a daughter, Liza. But the marriage proved disastrous; Maugham’s single goal thereafter seemed to be to put as many miles between himself and Syrie as  was humanly possible. His insatiable lust  for travel served the purpose well. In 1919, along with his lover Gerald Haxton, Maugham sojourned to China. (He and Gerald had previously traveled together to the South Seas, a journey which produced one of his most famous short stories, “Rain.” This tale of passion both sacred and profane features one of Maugham’s most memorable protagonists, the free living prostitute Sadie Thompson.)

At the time that Maugham and Gerald Haxton were in China, the country was unstable and conditions for tourists were dire. As usual, Maugham did not let these factors deter him. He was fascinated by the place. China, he declared, is a country that “gives you everything.” For the first time in his peripatetic life, Maugham found himself in a place whose language was impenetrable to him. But reliance on interpreters posed no great obstacle, for Maugham was not so much interested in the Chinese people themselves as in the Westerners living in their midst. Selina Hastings tells us:

As before in Polynesia, The Americans and Europeans he encountered, the lives of doctors, diplomats, traders, missionaries, and their women, were the subject of his  closest scrutiny, and his notes are full of their stories: the consul, the taipan, the desperate-to-be-married spinster, the missionary who had come to hate his  calling, the agent of British-American Tobacco driven half mad by homesickness, the saintly mother superior in her white-walled convent who talked nostalgically of her family home in the south of France.

Ah, the saintly mother superior! And so we  come to The Painted Veil.

In his preface to a later edition (possibly in 1952 or 1953, when the copyright was renewed), Maugham states that the idea for this novel came to him from a story told by Dante in the Purgatory section of The Divine Comedy. He quotes seven lines of verse in the original Italian, then translates them thus:

“‘Pray, when you are returned to the world, and rested from the long journey,’ followed the third spirit on the second, ‘remember me, who am Pia. Siena made me, Maremma unmade me: this he knows who after betrothal espoused me with his ring.'”

When Maugham a young medical student, he took advantage of a break in his schedule and traveled to Italy. He acquired a language teacher, and together they were working their way through Dante’s masterpiece. When they came to the passage alluded to above, his instructor offered him the following explanation:

…Pia was a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband, suspecting her of adultery and afraid on account of her family to put her to death, took her down to castle in the Maremma the noxious vapors of which he was confident would do the trick; but she took so long to die that he grew impatient and had her thrown out of the window.

Now, Maugham’s Italian tutor was a somewhat feckless young woman, and he had trouble imagining from whence she’d gleaned this strange tale. Nevertheless, it haunted him: “I turned it over in my mind and for many years from time to time would brood over it for two or three days. I used to repeat to myself the line: Siena mi fe; disfecemi Maremma.”

In a footnote, Selina Hastings confirms the story of Pia, though not the part about the defenestration. Hastings adds that Maugham had an addition source of inspiration for The Painted Veil. This had to do with the scandalous behavior of an Englishwoman in Hong Kong. She doesn’t elaborate, and I’ve not been able to find out anything further about who this person was or what she did.
One of the things that made Selina Hastings’s biography such fun to read was the vast number of celebrities whose paths crossed with Maugham’s at one time or another. Politicians, statesmen, writers, actors, and many others appear at various points in his long and varied life story.  I kept a running list; here are some of the names on it: Eric Ambler, Kingsley Amis, Tallulah Bankhead, Bernard Berenson, Isaiah Berlin, Anthony Blunt, Charlie Chaplin, Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, Ian Fleming, Bette Davis, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, H.G. Wells, Graham Greene, Christopher Isherwood, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Cary Grant, Virginia Woolf.

As I said, that is only a partial list.
Shortly before the Hanover date, my husband and I had the pleasure of viewing once again the 2006 film of the novel. What a sumptuous production! Gorgeously photographed and with an exceptionally lovely soundtrack , and stellar performances by Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in the lead roles and Diana Rigg as the Mother Superior – a class act from beginning to end.

I recalled the way in which the ending of The Painted Veil was changed in the film, but on this viewing, with the novel fresh in my mind, I detected a number of other, lesser changes as well. Yet I feel that in the main, the film remains true to the spirit of the novel. They’re two different entities, and both are wonderful.

There’s much more that could be said, but since I’ve already blogged quite a bit about Somerset Maugham, I’m going to close here with a heartfelt thanks to my friends in Hanover for once again making me part of this book discussion series. I also owe thanks to my friends from Howard County who drove up to Hanover to attend this presentation and also to shop – two very worthy aims!


Portions of my talk were captured on video by my husband. Click here to view.


  1. littlegidding4 said,

    That’s excellent. Roberta, and will inspire me to go back and read some Maugham. I had a real obsession about 35 years ago, in my teens, when my pre-university dissertation was on ‘The colonial man in Maugham and Orwell’, and I was especially smitten by the short stories.

    I’m prohibited (by the rules of my blog) from buying any books this year, but when I’m free to do so in the New Year, I think I’ll read Cakes and Ale, as it’s the only major novel I haven’t read. I read Selina Hasting’s biography (the most recent of half a dozen I own), when it was published, and found it excellent.

    I always live in hope of convincing my reading group to schedule Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, as that’s said to be partly inspired by Maugham’s life, and Burgess lived in our village for four years before he went off to Malaya in 1954, but so far have had no luck!

    I’m also loving that window in your talk venue!


  2. kathy d. said,

    Thanks for the post about Somerset Maugham and the video clip on the film and the photos.
    I, too, went through a Somerset Maugham reading jag while a teenager, however, I don’t remember what I read nor the plots.
    I am so immersed here with piles of books that just seem to fly through the door and create their own stacks that I can’t read any more. I have to make a dent in the volume here.
    Also, I’d like to see The Painted Veil but I don’t want to see any more movies with women as victims in domestic conflicts.

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