Saturday, April 26, 2014
The Painted Veil - W Somerset Maugham
Kitty Garstin is a pretty and spoilt socialite who didn't make the most of her matrimonial opportunities, at the age of 25 with an 18 year old sister who has just managed to make a very eligible match she accepts a proposal from Walter Fane and goes out to Hong Kong with him. Walter is morbidly sensitive, intelligent, honourable, very much in love with Kitty, and not at all the man to capture her heart or imagination. As the book opens he's basically catching her in flagrante (it's not as salacious as it sounds) with Charles Townsend an Assistant Colonial Secretary. Kitty's lover is as vain and selfish as she is so when it all blows up on them he has no hesitation in dumping her in it. Walter gives Kitty a choice, if Charles will divorce his wife and promise to marry Kitty he'll allow her to divorce him, otherwise Walter can divorce her naming Charles as co-respondent and in the process creating the sort of scandal which would ruin his career and her reputation, or she can go with him to a cholera ridden city which means likely death. Walter knows exactly the kind of man Charles is, Kitty finds out the hard way when he basically sends her off to die with a cheery wave.
Initially Kitty isn't an attractive character but a combination of falling in love for the first time (with Charles) being exposed to death and poverty, and losing the adoration of her husband does a lot to build her character. What doesn't kill her makes her stronger. Perhaps the biggest revelation for Kitty is that there is nobody in the world who cares if she lives or dies, second is that here Walter isn't just valued for his work he's seen almost as a saint. The balance of their relationship changes again and then quite shockingly Walter dies.
What really blew me away about this book is how Maugham kept wrong footing me, the way things work out makes sense, they're believable, human, have an element of hope, but are not happy endings in the traditional sense. The film version from 2006 changes things somewhat (or so I gather from the plot summery on Wikipedia) and has Kitty fall in love with Walter. She never gets further than a profound pity in the book which was hard on this reader. I liked Walter, Maugham does I think attempt to make him unsympathetic - he keeps pointing out that people don't like him and that he's somehow unattractive, but it's not enough. I wanted Kitty to - not fall in love with him, but to no longer be bored by him, or at least not to feel so much sympathy for him myself, but then it wouldn't have been such a powerful read so what do I know.
Ann Bridge's Peking Picnic which I didn't really like (both are set in China and involve adultery) is an interesting companion read to this - I don't think the Bridge comes out particularly well from the comparison - Maugham's characters are so much more believable and this book just generally better in every way, but it does give some context and in some ways Bridge's Laura Leroy is very like Charles wife Dorothy, had I read 'The Painted Veil' first I might have enjoyed 'Peking Picnic' more.