The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

In the preface to the Vintage edition, the author relays a number of interesting things about this story. He explains that he was a student at St. Thomas’s Hospital and had six weeks of Easter vacation during which he went to Italy with his clothes and twenty pounds in his pocket. His widowed landlady’s daughter was teaching him Italian during part of the day and they were reading the Purgatorio and she told him a story connected to a passage they were translating.

“She told me that Pia was a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband, suspecting her of adultery and afraid on account of her family to put her to death, took her down to his castle in the Maremma the noxious vapors of which he was confident would do the trick; but she took so long to die that he grew impatient and had her thrown out the window…the story for some reason caught my imagination.” He goes on and explains that he forgot the story for a long time and when he did think of it could not “think of a setting in the world of today in which such events could plausibly happen. It was not until I made a long journey in China that I found this.”

Maugham also writes: “I think this is the only novel I have written in which I started from a story rather than from a character. It is difficult to explain the relation between character and plot. You cannot very well think of a character in the void; the moment you think of him, you think of him in some situation, doing something; so that the character and at least his principal action seem to be the result of a simultaneous act of the imagination. But in this case the characters were chosen to fit the story I gradually evolved; they were constructed from persons I had long known in different circumstances.” This is followed by a brief tale of problems naming characters and legal challenges to same: this would be of interest to those doing any writing of their own.

The actual story catches the reader’s interest immediately: “She gave a startled cry.” Painted VeilSomeone has just tried the door of a room and interrupted something. Very cinematic. Do you imagine a room in disarray, clothing scattered about, one shoe here, one there?

It is decided very quickly that the person trying the door and the windows too has to be Walter because the servants never disturb her at this time so it has to be Walter even though he “never does come home in the middle of the day, does he?” This is important because they have already realized that a hat was left downstairs which might give away the presence of another person in the house. They convince themselves it must have been a servant because “only a Chinese would turn a handle in that way.”

They discuss what they think will happen: “What’s to be done if it was Walter? she asked.

“”Perhaps he wouldn’t care.”

“Walter?”

Her tone was incredulous.”

The reader, at this point, knows no more about Walter than about the two people discussing Walter. At this point we do not have names for the two people who are so worried about Walter. In the next short chapter we learn that the woman is Kitty, that her lover is Charlie Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary at Hong Kong and his wife is Dorothy Townsend, mother of Charlie’s three sons. Dorothy’s father had been a Colonial Governor. The triangle is complete.

Kitty has been meeting Charlie in the upstairs backroom of a Chinese curio dealer off the Victoria Road in Hong Kong and she found it “dreadfully sordid”. Charles Townsend, however, was everything her husband Walter was not. He told her everything she wanted and needed to hear. “She had never been in love before. It was wonderful. And now that she knew what love was she felt a sudden sympathy for the love that Walter bore her.”

“Her happiness, sometimes almost more than she could bear, renewed her beauty. Just before she married, beginning to lose her first freshness, she had looked tired and drawn.  The uncharitable said that she was going off. But there is all the difference between a girl of twenty-five and a married woman of that age. She was like a rosebud that is beginning to turn yellow at the edges of the petals, and then suddenly she was a rose in full bloom…She looked eighteen once more. She was at the height of her glowing loveliness…She was what Charlie had called her the first time he saw her, a raging beauty.”

“They managed their intrigue with skill. …They could not meet often alone, not half often enough for him, but he had to think of her first, sometimes in the curio shop, now and then after luncheon in her house when no one was about; but she saw him a good deal here and there.”

“She worshipped him. He was splendid …certainly he was the best dancer she had ever danced wth; it was a dream to dance with him. No one would think he was forty. She told him she did not believe it…He laughed. He was well pleased.”

And what of Walter? “Of course it was not certain yet that Walter knew the truth, and if he didn’t it was better perhaps to leave well alone; but if he did, well, in the end it would be the best thing for all of them. …It was not as though any one would suffer very much. She knew exactly what his relations were with his wife. She was a cold woman and there had been no love between them for years. …Walter loved her; but after all, he was absorbed in his work; and a man always had his club; he might be upset at first, but he would get over it; there was no reason why he should not marry someone else. Charlie had told her that he could not make out how she came to throw herself away on Walter Fane.”

Is it ever that simple? If you haven’t read this 1925 classic  you might be pleasantly surprised.  I found it an intriguing read with the exotic setting a major character. If you read it some time go, a reread might be surprisingly enjoyable.