The Painted Veil

Title: The Painted Veil

Author: M Somerset Maugham

Published: 1925

Period: Around 1920 or so; the book's action takes place in a single summer.

One-sentence synopsis: Kitty, a hot but aging English spinster, marries in haste and comes to regret it as her medical scientist husband ships her out to Hong Kong, where she, ah, gets involved in colonial society, only to be shanghaied by hubby once more, this time on a mission of mercy to a cholera-stricken city deep in the mainland.

Cutural focus (i.e. is the book about westerners or Chinese): Westerners, definitely. Although there are a few brief (and mostly sympathetic) portrayals of Chinese characters, they are mere props in the drama of the Europeans' lives.

Evocation of Hong Kong setting: There's little sense here of Hong Kong's physical setting (there are just brief mentions of 'Happy Valley' and 'the Peak'). But the satire of colonial/expat society in Hong Kong is pointed:

Kitty, coming to Hong Kong on her marriage, had found it hard to reconcile herself to the fact that her social position was determined by her husband's occupation. Of course every one had been very kind and for two or three months they had gone out to parties almost every night; when they dined at Government House the Governor took her in as a bride; but she had understood quickly that as the wife of the Government bacteriologist she was of no particular consequence.

"It's too absurd," she told her husband. "Why, there's hardly any one here that one would bother about for five minutes at home. Mother wouldn't dream of asking any of them to dine at our house. (p. 15)

Also note this one-liner from Charles Townsend, the 'Assistant Colonial Secretary', and Kitty's lover:

"There's no reason I shouldn't be a Governor one of these days, and it's a damn soft job to be a Colonial Governor." (p. 76)

But Townsend may not even be capable of meeting that standard:

"As long as Charlie Townsend's got her [i.e. his homely but sensible wife] to depend on he's pretty safe never to do a foolish thing, and that the first thing necessary for a man to get on in Government service. They don't want clever men; clever men have ideas, and ideas cause trouble; they want men who have charm and tact and who can be counted on never to make a blunder." (p. 101)

The sequence of the book that takes place in the mainland is much more evocative. The horrors and general air of unreality and fatalism surrounding the cholera epidemic are well-drawn, and images of the sticken city linger in the mind:

Though on the river it was light so that you could discern palely the lines of the crowded junks and the thick forest of their masts, in front it was a shining wall the eye could not pierce. But suddenly from that white cloud a tall, grim, and massive bastion emerged . . . . It towered, the stronghold of a cruel and barbaric race, over the river. But the magician who built worked swiftly and now a fragment of colored wall crowned the bastion; in a moment, out of the mist, looming vastly and touched here and there by a yellow ray of sun, there was seen a cluster of green and yellow roofs . . . . This was no fortress, nor a temple, but the magic palace of some emperor of the gods where no man might enter. It was too airy, fantastic, and unsubstantial to be the work of human hands; it was the fabric of a dream. (pp. 96-97)

Inscrutability index, on a scale of 1-10 (i.e., if the book is written by a westerner, to what degree does he see Chinese culture as 'inscrutable'?): I've got to give it no less than an 8.

To his credit, Maugham does make some stabs at establishing the humanity of the Chinese people in these pages. For example, as he's describing Mr Waddington, an English customs inspector who's clearly 'gone native' in the mainland, there's a window opened in that wall of inscrutability:

. . . he had adopted the Chinese view that the Europeans were the barbarians and their life a folly: in China alone was it so led that a sensible mand might discern in it a sort of reality. Here was food for reflection: Kitty had never heard of the Chinese spoken of as anything but decadent, dirty and unspeakable. It was as though the corner of a curtain were lifted for a moment, and she caught a glimpse of a world rich with a color and significance she had not dreamt of. (p. 104)

But in general Maugham falls short in his attempts to understand Chinese culture and people; see, for example, Kitty's reaction as she meets Waddington's Manchu mistress, as Maugham slips back into the familiar, and uses that very word:

Here was the East, immemorial, dark, and inscrutable. The beliefs and the ideals of the West seemed crude beside ideals and ideals and beliefs of which in this exquisite creature she seemed to catch a fugitive glimpse. (p. 170)

"of which in this"? Gaaah! Maybe I'm giving Maugham too much credit as a writer . . . !

Typhoon count: Zero. This is surprising; there's lots of dialog in which the characters moan about the heat, but there's nary a tropical storm in sight in this one.

Review: I decided to begin my series of reviews of Hong Kong novels with a book by an author I read quite avidly at one point in my life, and who I think gets less respect as a novelist than he may deserve. Maughm is best known for blockbusters such as Of Human Bondage and The Razor's Edge. But he also traveled extensively, including to the far East, and wrote this nice compact novel based on a trip that obviously included a stop in colonial Hong Kong.

In spite of Maugham's occasionally clumsy prose, this is a book worth reading. It's typical of a Maugham novel in that its central character's spiritual quest provides its depth and driving energy. Although there are long sequences here comprising nothing but internal monologue, they're rarely boring or trite, and they sometimes rise to the level of real insight. Maugham infuses his characters' decisions, and the often-sordid messes they get themselves into, with emotional, psychological and spiritual significance. There's also enough historical and cultural texture here to keep Hong Kong readers interested.

Finally, The Painted Veil serves as a good introduction to Maugham's work in that you get a representative taste of his style and approach, but it's not too long (under 250 pages), unlike his massive signature works.

Bonus information: The Painted Veil has been made into a film three times. The first, from 1934, starred no less than Greta Garbo. The most recent came out in 2006, starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, with a setting in Shanghai substituted for HK. I never even knew these films existed! Has anyone seen either of them?

Getting your hands on a copy:

The Amazon link is here.

This book is available for borrowing in the Hong Kong Public Library System. You can search for copies here.

Next up: John Lanchester's Fragrant Harbour


I'm not very original . . . !

When I picked up a copy of the The Painted Veil and started reading, I knew I'd come across a recommendation of it somewhere as providing some nice insights into class consciousness in colonial Hong Kong, but I couldn't remember where. That was dense of me, since it was in this comment by SKMama on an education thread here on not long ago!

Thanks, SKMama, for the recommendation, even if I couldn't remember it for a while!

Painted Veil

Hi Mr. T,

I'm glad you're enjoying it. Also thanks for remembering my reference to it in my old post.

I'll try to think of other HK-related fiction to recommend (or review).

More recommendations, please!

Hi skmama;

Yes, please do send along any other recommendations that come to mind.

My next project will be John Lanchester's Fragrant Harbour, but after that I'm looking for excuses to put off reading Taipan . . . .

books etc.

Am doing the same and am working now on Fragrant Harbour as well as Yellowthread series by William Marshall.  A great approach to knowing a place!

change of ending

the worst thing about the lastest film made is that they changed the ending completely and thereby did no justice to the original story and it's wry comments.