Recommended Reads: The Painted Veil

This week’s Recommended Read comes from Lois Walters, our Lambeth Get Into Reading Project Worker, who has returned again and again to W Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil.

I was a late comer to Somerset Maugham; perhaps wrongly thinking him a white male colonial writer, but The Painted Veil has converted me. His 1925 depiction of a woman’s journey from shallow social privilege to spiritual awakening and maturity took me on journey that reflected that of the woman, Kitty.  From South Kensington in London, through Hong Kong and the cholera ridden remote depths of mainland China Kitty and I, stumbling at times, discovered a world beyond our own.

The book’s title refers to Shelley’s sonnet ‘Lift Not The Painted Veil’ which suggests we should ‘lift not the painted veil’ of life for ‘behind, lurk Fear and Hope, twin destinies’.  At the start of the novel Kitty leads a vacuous and superficial life – her destiny defined by her social status and gender. The book cleverly mirrors Kitty’s intellectual and mental  state- starting with short, often mawkish chapters where the characters are given  physical descriptions and little depth, and then developing into longer deeper chapters as Kitty, often accidentally (or through destiny), is exposed to a world beyond privileged South Kensington between the wars.

The opening chapter is one of great tension before Maugham flashes back and forth between past and present explaining to the reader how Kitty comes to be caught in flagrante delicto in the opening pages. Even after several reads it still amazes me that the book was first published in 1925, and more amazingly that it was written by a man. As Maugham slowly lifts the painted veil of Kitty’s life we the readers are drawn into her world, as she, in the words of the poem ‘sought…things to love’. Kitty like most of the characters is not wholly likeable; she is vain, judgemental and selfish – or perhaps, real? We discover as the book opens up that behind the painted veil of her life do indeed lurk fear and hope; Kitty marries a man she doesn’t love, or even really know, out of fear that she will be ‘left on the shelf’- partly spurred on by the chance that her younger sister  will beat her to the altar. She then experiences hope when she falls in love with Charlie and starts an affair with him, only to then be sent back to fear as he lets her down and she is forced to travel to cholera ridded Mei-tan-fu with the husband she does not love.

Shelley’s poem refers to hope and fear as ‘twin destinies’ and throughout the book we see them juxtaposed. Not just for Kitty though. Her cold and calculating mother fears that Kitty, when she is still unmarried at 25 (again important to remember the book was written in 1925), will be a burden on the family. One of the parts of the book that I found most disturbing is when Kitty arrives in Mei-tan-fu, full of fear, and thinks of running away but then realises

It was out of the question. If she went where would she go? Not to her mother; her mother would make her see very plainly that, having married her off, she counted on being rid of her.

But there is still the hope that her lover Charlie may come to her rescue, for Kitty has not yet lifted the painted veil that she has draped over Charlie Townsend hiding the reality that he is also self serving and superficial.

One of the reasons I love the book is that although Kitty is selfish and vacuous, she is also a product of her environment. She is naive and sheltered, there to look pretty and support her husband – but as we see her thrown into situations she is unfamiliar with she shows as certain bravery and stoicism. She also matures and starts to see the world outside her very parochial upbringing. There is a very beautiful scene, when she has arrived in Mei-tan-fu and is miserable and missing Charlie. She awakes from dreaming about him and observes the morning mist slowly dispersing and;

suddenly from that white cloud a tall, grim bastion emerged. It seemed not merely to be made visible by the all-discovering sun but rather to rise out of nothing at the touch of a magic wand.

This vision moves Kitty to tears and is the start of her spiritual maturity (and I think the moment that the members of my Get Into Reading group started to empathise with her);

she had never felt so light of heart and it seemed to her as though her body were a shell that lay at her feet and she pure spirit. Here was Beauty. She took it as the believer takes in his mouth the wafer which is God

The novel opens up as Kitty opens her eyes to the outside world and Maugham subtly changes the structure of the writing. Kitty is still flawed and selfish, but she is also human, for which of us has not made mistakes and shown poor judgement at some point in our lives?

I have read the book now twice on my own and once with a Get Into Reading group and still find much to love about it. Sharing it with others, who admittedly at times struggled to see the advantage of reading it during the early chapters when it seemed to be a novel filled with privileged and shallow character, has made me cherish it more.

I would like to thank my Get Into Reading group members at the Lambeth Walk Group Practice for their inspiring reactions to the novel and their trust that it is a book worth sticking with. It is!

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