The Painted Veil – A book Review

Every month in the Oprah magazine, a celebrity would name his/her favourite book. Eg: this month, actor John Crusack’s favourite book is To Kill A Mocking Bird – my favourite too. Many times, the author Somerset Maugham comes up again and again and I tell myself I must read at least one of his books. So I picked up the book The Painted Veil from a book warehouse sale, mainly because I had watched the movie and would at least understand the story if the writing is difficult.

This book was first published in 1925. The story is set in Hong Kong and China during that period. Kitty, the elder daughter of a lawyer and his wife had been groomed by her mother to be a catch for any eligible men in the London high society. Thus, she was vain, flighty and somewhat silly. Her mother’s aim was to raise her own status either through her husband, or through her daughters’ marriages. Unfortunately for Kitty, they were too choosy and when her uglier younger sister was proposed first by a man who would inherit a title, in a panic, she quickly settled for bacterologist Walter Fane. Immediately after the wedding, she followed Walter to Hong Kong. There, she had an affair with married man Charlie Townsend and was discovered by Walter. Kitty was very sure Charlie would divorce his wife to marry her but Charlie was a coward. In despair, she accompanied Walter to Cholera infected Mei-Tan-Fu.

At Mei-Tan-Fu, she befriended Waddinton, who in turn introduced her to the Catholic nuns running the convent cum ophanage there. Kitty was deeply touched by the nuns’ selflessness and to pass time, she volunteered herself there and started discovering another side of human nature, one that she was not exposed to in high society London or even Hong Kong.

Later, she discovered that she was pregnant and even as Walter allowed her to leave the village, she refused, until Walter got infected by Cholera and died.

At the end of the book, Kitty returned to her father, whom she and her mother had despised because he could not afford them more luxuriously, and was shocked to discover that her father too had disliked them as well.

The difference between the book and the movie is the richly worded text that rewards the readers’ imagination.

I quote, "The sky was unclouded and the early sun shed a heavenly mildness on the scene; it was difficult to imagine, on that blithe, fresh, and smiling morn, that the city lay gasping, like a man whose life is being throttled out of him by a maniac’s hands, in the dark clutch of pestilence."

"Beauty is also a gift of God, one of the most rare and precious, and we should be thankful if we are happy enough to possess it and thankful, if we are not, that others possess it for our pleasure."

However, I had a shocked when I first read Kitty’s description of the Chinese ophans – "…their uniform dress, sallow-skinned, stunted, with their flat noses, they looked to her hardly human. They were repulsive."

My copy of the book had a preface in which the author described how he came to write this book – a reward for any would be writer to gain insights to how famous authors get inspiration for their story.

In case you did not know, W Somerset Maugham visited Singapore a few times in the 1920s and 30s and stayed at the Raffles Hotel, which later named a suite after him.

Somerset Maugham Suite (Taken from Raffles Hotel Website)

Somerset Maugham made many trips to the Far East, often stopping off for a few days at Raffles Hotel. His first visit took place in 1921 when he was already an established novelist and dramatist. From this visit and other visits in the 1920s and early 1930s, he produced two collections of his short stories – `The Casuarina Tree’ and `Ah King’.




About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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