The Painted Veil – Somerset Maugham
Published in 1925, this classic novel has at its heart a curiously contemporary feel. The colonial Hong Kong society of the novel no longer exists, but the themes in ‘The Painted Veil’ strike a chord for the 21st century reader. Maugham has, as in his other novels, delved into the human mind and its capacity for self-delusion, with a rare light touch.
In the novel, Kitty Fane, the protagonist, ‘an actressy-type’, is depicted as a shallow pleasure-seeking, vain young woman, who is married to a bacteriologist, Walter. She is not enamoured of him, and instead falls heavily for a charmer. When her husband discovers her affair, she decides to brazen it out, confident that her lover would stand by her. This does not happen and her husband forces her to accompany him into a cholera-infested district. She is sure that he has brought her there to die. Tumultuous events take place there, and the reader discovers that the old Kitty dies metaphorically. The newly born Kitty learns what tragedy is. She is reborn into a new consciousness of what love and sacrifice is.
But don’t imagine that she and her husband live happily ever after.
We would do Maugham a disservice if we thought the book would end thus. The author has blended elements of ancient Chinese philosophy with a modern outlook on relationships. In many ways, the book seems frighteningly relevant even today – such is its power.
The central premise of the book does hit very close to home for many of us who have travelled those paths of love and longing.