The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

I have been coveting a copy of The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham ever since I saw the gorgeous 2006 film adaptation starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. For the first half of the book I felt the film was very faithful to the novel, but towards the end a major difference arises which makes each little like the other.

The Painted Veil centres on the character Kitty Fane, a shallow socialite who marries Walter Fane, not because she loves him but simply to get away from her mother and be married before her younger sister. The fact that he’s a bacteriologist stationed in Hong Kong seems an added bonus to her for the extra distance it will put between herself and her family. Unsatisfied with her marriage to Walter, who is as devoted to her as a dog but so painfully reserved that she knows next to nothing about him, Kitty starts an affair with the charismatic Charles Townsend. When Walter discovers their relationship he is crushed and furious. He exacts a bizarre and horrible vengeance on Kitty by forcing her to accompany him to his new posting in a remote region of China which is in the grips of a cholera epidemic. Kitty fears he has done this in the hope that she will die, and becomes bitterly lonely and isolated until, subtly, something within her begins to change.

At times I found Maugham’s tone towards women and the Chinese a tad chauvinistic and confronting, but once I got past that I found it to be a beautiful novel. Bleak, but beautiful. As Kitty throws herself into charity work in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, she works on her inner self and attains a greater understanding of the world around her and how she has impacted on others. I enjoyed reading about her going through this process of self discovery and betterment.

I’m going to discuss the different endings in the book and the film now, so if you haven’t read or watched either skip past this bit to my favourite passages. In the film as Kitty begins to find an inner strength she and Walter fall deeply in love with each other, making his horrible death very poignant and tragic. In the book Kitty begins to have sympathy for but never falls in love with Walter, she acknowledges this a number of times leading up to and after his death. This gives the book a much bleaker tone. But I just can’t decide which ending I preferred, both left me in tears and both worked well. I think having seen and fallen in love with the film first it has a more special place in my heart, but reading The Painted Veil was an intense and moving experience.

My Favourite Passages:

“I don’t understand anything. Life is so strange. I feel like some one who’s lived all his life by a duck-pond and suddenly is shown the sea. It makes me a little breathless, and yet it fills me with elation. I don’t want to die, I want to live. I’m beginning to feel a new courage. I feel like one of those old sailors who set sail for undiscovered seas and I think my soul hankers for the unknown.”

“She was accustomed to his habit of meeting with silence a statement which you would naturally expect to evoke an exclamation, but never had it seemed to her more devastating. He said nothing; he made no gesture; no movement on his face nor change of expression in his dark eyes indicated that he had heard. She felt suddenly inclined to cry. If a man loved his wife and his wife loved him, at such a moment they were drawn together by a poignant emotion. The silence was intolerable and she broke it.”

“Tao. Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whisky and some in love. It is all the same Way and it leads to nowhither.”

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21 responses

  1. Ah, now I remember the preview for the movie! It looked really good, but I didn’t get around to seeing it (hence skipped your discussion about the endings).
    Another one to add to my book lemmings!

    1. It’s a really great move, so picturesque. 🙂

  2. This sounds great and I love that picture! I am adding it to my wish list

    1. I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

  3. Oh that sound like a great book! I should really try some Maugham (I´ve only read his Summing Up). I didn´t even know there was a film adaptation, I´ll have to look out for that.
    And I can´t say it enough, those vintage classic editions are gorgeous!

    1. I haven’t read any other Maugham, I’m wondering what of his I should try next.

  4. Oh no! She doesnt love him in the novel… how very upsetting. I imagine that would make the conclusion every bit as depressing as it was in the film, only with a completely different meaning behind it…
    Perhaps Kitty simply couldnt bring herself to love book!Walter because he wasnt Ed Norton…. that would be my excuse! But seriously, if i were in her shoes i have to confess i would have a very hard time forgiving such treatment – but then, the same could be said if i were in Walter’s place aswell

    1. Book Walter doesn’t sound as attractive as Edward Norton, it’s true! 😉

  5. Oh, I loved the film. It was so beautiful and I loved how Kitty and Walter were portrayed. I haven’t read the book and am surprised that they differ (but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, really) but Kitty’s growth as a person is really interesting and I think I’ll just have to go and read it!

    1. I hope you enjoy it. It’s an unusual circumstance this film adaptation where it’s so similar for so long and then suddenly so completely different!

  6. I found your blog via the Australian Book Bloggers Directory. I love meeting fellow book bloggers and I love meeting Australian book bloggers even more! 🙂 Nice to meet you.

    And the plot thickens…

    1. Hi Rachel, thanks for stopping by! I love your blog, it’s very stylish. I tried to leave you a comment but I couldn’t work out how. Do you have them disabled?

  7. I’ve never heard of either this book or the film adaptation *hangs head in shame* as it sounds just my cup of tea. Another one to add to my TBR list as an author I’ve never read anything of either.

    1. Yay! I hope you like the book/movie if you read/watch it. 🙂

  8. I listened to the audio book a few years ago and really liked it. Thanks for reminding I want to see the movie.

    1. I hope you enjoy it, it’s such a beautiful film.

  9. Enjoyed reading your review. Somerset Maugham is one of my favourite authors and I have loved all his books that I have read. I haven’t read ‘The Painted Veil’ though and haven’t seen the movie adaptation either. Glad to know that you liked both the book and the movie. I liked both the endings that you have described (I couldn’t resist reading them :)) I think they are good in different ways. I think the film ending is appropriate for a film. I will add this book to my wishlist and try to read it soon. I am also looking forward to finding out how Maugham depicts the China of that era in this book and how it compares with the depictions of other writers like Pearl Buck, Christopher New and Han Suyin.

    1. I agree the different endings did seem appropriate to each medium. I hope you enjoy the book, obviously I really love the film too so if you get around to seeing that I hope you like it. I found Maugham’s depictions of China very picturesque, but the descriptions of the Chinese rather racist and condescending, which I suppose isn’t unusual considering the novel’s context of being published in 1925.

      1. That is sad – shame on my favourite author Maugham 🙂

        I will search for the film when I go to the DVD shop next time.

  10. […] Challenges ← The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham […]

  11. I didn’t see the film so I skipped that part of your review, but you really make me want to read this! I think I’ll read it first and then watch the film.

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