Humanity > pleasing plots in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil

Book Reviews, Book Thoughts, Recommended


The beautiful Kitty marries boring Walter Fane in a hurry after her sister beats her to an advantageous match, but is swept off their feet by the charismatic assistant colonial secretary on their arrival in Hong Kong. When Walter discovers her infidelity he takes her away to a town gripped by a cholera epidemic, where Kitty gradually discovers life and her very self to be more than they seemed.

The characters in this book are portrayed marvellously. We follow Kitty’s viewpoint, and her development from a woman obsessed by society and fairly shallow ideas into something more is intriguing: but every character we meet is real, suprising and complex.

In the introduction, Maugham explains that the basic plot was a story he had heard elsewhere; and it had seemed a challenge to him to put characters into it. He achieves this remarkably well; the decisions, actions and speech of every person seem totally human.

This seems to be his main decision throughout. A part of me was gunning for Kitty and Walter to fall deeply in love, which of course would make a neat, satisfying and romantic story line – but Maugham opts each time for humanity. Even decisions and revelations that a character has come to can be undone by weakness, ensuring that no cheap moral is propagated.

The one person I would have liked to know better was Walter; the husband. His motivations taking Kitty to a place of likely death were explored, and his varying emotions towards her, but she does not understand him well, and therefore nor do we. If Maugham’s challenge was to bring to life this story surely the key factor to explain was the husband’s actions, which he does only moderately.

A great book, very well written, with drama and real character development and wonderful humanity. I’d recommend it, and will hunt down some more Maugham.

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