Maugham, W. Somerset. 1925. The Painted Veil. London: William Heinemann.  rpt. London: Mandarin Paperbacks 1991.

Maugham’s novel begins in Hong Kong but the story quickly moves to mainland China where most of the events take place. This is similar in structure to Han Suyin’s Destination Chungking. Though Hong Kong only occupies a marginal position in the narrative, Maugham draws a vivid picture of the colonial expatriate community comparable in insight and finely-drawn detail to some of Rudyard Kipling’s best stories about anglo-India. For this reason, the novel is included here.

Kitty and Walter Fane are an English couple in the middle ranks of the rigidly hierarchized expatriate society in early twentieth century colonial Hong Kong. Kitty is the daughter of a hen-pecked lawyer and his ambitious and parsimonious wife. She is pretty, gay, but frivolous. Walter is a bacteriologist, a clever but emotionally repressed man who knew Kitty was superficial but fell in love with her nonetheless. Kitty’s reasons for marrying Walter are less complicated; he is a prospect to her and especially her mother. Becoming bored with Walter whose lowly position cannot give her social recognition and whose salary can pay for few material pleasures, Kitty is easily seduced into an affair with Charles Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary. Townsend is a rising star in the colonial establishment who artfully conceals his debauchery, aided and abetted by his female conquests who are usually too ashamed about their liaison, and even more, their abandonment by him.

After Walter discovers the affair, he devises a cruel plot to force Kitty to confront Townsend. She is easily brushed aside as Townsend reveals fully his callousness. Deciding on further revenge, Walter accepts an  appointment in Mei-tan-fu, a remote town on the Chinese mainland hit by a cholera epidemic, and the pleasure-seeking Kitty has no choice but to go with him. The rest of the narrative is about their life in Mei-tan-fu, the gradual extension of Kitty’s social awareness beyond pleasure-seeking, and her attempt to move closer in understanding toward Walter as she probes the inner reaches of her own self.

As a romance narrative, The Painted Veil stays within orientalist grooves where “China” is the purgatorial space of trial where the westerner loses and then attempts to rediscover (or reinvent) his or her integral self. Maugham is, however, an astute observer of  colonial manners, and his characters develop some emotional and psychological complexity once their external framing of societal origin and condition set them in their places. If we can imagine the lively individuals sketched in Maugham’s On a Chinese Screen being given scope to become multi-dimensional fictional characters, we get a sense of how he develops Kitty Fane as character in The Painted Veil

Kitty’s relationship with Walter is the focus of the narrative and it is mostly seen from her point of view. He is more often described externally, and occasionally  revealed in direct speech. For the most part, he is taciturn and silent, a supposed character trait that is amplified by the fact that we rarely see him through free indirect style, and so very little of his  interiority. He is the mysterious other, almost like “China” itself to Kitty. This mapping of her husband onto “China” as spaces of self and social speculation and inquiry gives the narrative’s orientalism an inventive twist. (EH)


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