Anne (Booklady) Molinarolo's Reviews > The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
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Sep 17, 11

it was amazing
bookshelves: fall-2011, favorites, great-literary-fiction
Read from September 15 to 16, 2011

W. Somerset Maugham's love life was paradoxical, especially since he had many affairs with both men and women during his lifetime. He wrote: "I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed... In order not to hurt their feelings, I have often acted a passion I did not feel." Therefore, it is not wondrous that Dante’s character, Pia, should inspire one of my favorite stories, THE PAINTED VEIL.

In 1925 England, Kitty Garstan is a spoiled young woman who revels in the attention of “her” young men. She is shallow and jejune, but the young Bacteriologist, Walter Fane, loves her to his own detriment. Though he knows she is embarrassed by his marriage proposal because she does not love him, she accepts to escape the shame of her homely younger sister’s impending nuptials. Mrs. Garstan warns of spinsterhood and the loss of beauty. After all, Kitty IS 25 and with no recent “good marriage” proposals, besides a life in Hong Kong where Walter is stationed intrigues Kitty.

Much to Kitty’s delight, she finds the colonial outpost’s society and the attention of the handsome Colonel Charles Townsend greatly to her liking. The Assistant Governor of Hong Kong is her living, male doppelganger. Bored with Walter, Kitty soon falls into an affair with the married Townsend. But Walter is no fool. He knows. “I have eyes, Kitty.”
Then to Kitty Fane’s astonishment, her husband agrees to allow her to divorce him under one condition: Charles must divorce his wife and they, Kitty and Townsend, must marry within a week of both decrees or Walter will ruin her lover by naming the Colonel as co-respondent. Otherwise, he expects his wife to accompany him to Mei-tan-fei, a city in the height of a Cholera epidemic.

An ecstatic, Kitty rushes to Charles and discovers another truth that her husband knows. The man she loves is a cad, a supercilious one at best. Devastated, she returns home and tells Walter, that she is to go to Mei-tan-fu with him. During the days of their long journey, she mourns the loss of her lover and resigns herself to the fate her husband has planned for her. Dr. Walter Fane means for her die of the Cholera that is plaguing the Chinese city. Awaiting her certain death, Kitty Fane discovers beauty, strength, and serenity within herself. But the greatest realization for Maugham’s Pia is the lesson of love: how she has affected those people who had tried to love her by withholding her own love. By forgiving the callous selfishness learned from her mother Kitty can truly love and be loved by others she desperately needs.

THE PAINTED VEIL is strictly told by Kitty’s point of view, since Maugham created her character first, rather than allowing the setting dictating Kitty’s thoughts, words, and actions. Borrowing the story of the Sienna gentlewoman from Dante’s INFERNO and infusing Percy’s sonnet line – “Lift not the painted veil which those who live call life “- Maugham delivers a hauntingly beautiful story of character growth in his usual compact prose.
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