Kitty Garstin marries Walter Fane for all the wrong reasons. She’s a beautiful young girl, badly brought up by a snobbish mother & when her first few London seasons result in much admiration but few proposals, her mother’s obvious desire to get rid of her daughter lead Kitty to accept a proposal she would have rejected with scorn during her first season. The final straw is the news that her younger, less attractive sister, Doris, is engaged to the only son of a baronet. It’s true that Doris’s future father-in-law received his baronetcy for his work as a surgeon rather than inheriting a title but the news propels twenty-five year old Kitty into marriage. Walter Fane is a bacteriologist, home on leave from his Government post in Hong Kong. He’s a staid, quiet man, not socially adept but very much in love with Kitty. It soon becomes obvious that their temperaments are very different.
She had discovered very soon that he had an unhappy disability to lose himself. He was self-conscious. When there was a party and every one started singing Walter could never bring himself to join in. He sat there smiling to show that he was pleased and amused, but his smile was forced: it was more like a sarcastic smirk, and you could not help feeling that he thought all those people a pack of fools. He could not bring himself to play the round games which Kitty with her high spirits found such a lark. On their journey out to China he had absolutely refused to put on fancy dress when everyone else was wearing it. It disturbed her pleasure that he should so obviously think the whole thing a bore.
When the Fanes reach Hong Kong, Kitty soon becomes bored & dissatisfied with her lowly social status in the expatriate community as the wife of a scientist. She falls in love with the Assistant Secretary of the colony, Charlie Townsend. They meet in the afternoons in a rented flat above a curio shop & occasionally, very daringly, at Kitty’s house. When Walter discovers the affair, he gives Kitty an ultimatum. She is sure that Charlie wants to divorce his boring wife & marry her. Walter agrees to allow her to divorce him as long as she accompanies him to Mei-tan-fu, a town in inland China in the middle of a cholera epidemic. Walter has volunteered to go there to help in the hospital after the medical missionary died. A group of French nuns are attempting to keep the hospital running but they need help. Kitty is horrified by the idea & sees the trip as a means of her certain death. If Kitty refuses to accompany him, Walter will divorce her with all the scandal that would accompany such a course. On the other hand, if Charlie will agree to brave the scandal of the two divorces & marry Kitty, Walter will allow Kitty to divorce him. Kitty’s confidence in Charlie’s love is shaken by his conventional horror at the prospect of scandal & she realises that he had never really loved her. In despair she agrees to accompany Walter to Mei-tan-fu.
On their arrival, Walter becomes immersed in the work at the hospital. Kitty’s boredom & fear are allayed by her friendship with Waddington, the local Deputy Commissioner of Customs. Waddington drives Kitty around the local area & takes her to the convent to meet the Mother Superior. The convent has lost several nuns to the contagion & the Mother Superior refuses to let more nuns come to Mei-tan-fu while the risk is so great. Kitty becomes involved in the life of the convent & offers to help. She is not allowed near the hospital but is put to work in the orphanage, looking after the girls who are brought tot he nuns as an alternative to being left on the mountainside by their families to die of exposure.
Kitty’s attitudes are changed by her work at the convent & she begins to grow up. Walter is as distant as ever but Kitty finds a purpose & companionship with the nuns & the orphans. She sees different kinds of love, from the detached care of the Mother Superior for the orphans to the passionate attachment of a Manchu Chinese woman who left her family to follow Waddington. She tells Waddington,
“I don’t understand anything. Life is so strange. I feel like someone 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.”
The Painted Veil was published in 1925. Maugham writes in the Preface that it’s the only one of his novels that started with a story rather than a character. He was a young medical student on holiday in Italy, living very frugally, wandering around Florence & reading Dante with the help of his landlady’s daughter, where he came across the story that became the novel. From those beginnings, Maugham has created a very moving story of the emotional & spiritual growth of a human being. The story is told from Kitty’s viewpoint &, even from the beginning, when she’s an empty-headed butterfly, Maugham shows us how her upbringing has made her the way she is. She’s essentially innocent, even when she committing adultery, because she can’t see, as the reader can, how worthless Townsend is. She’s bored & used to flattery & flirtation so she’s an easy target for a man like Townsend. The depiction of the marriage of Kitty’s parents could have been seen as just a subplot but their relationship – the dominance of Kitty’s mother & the self-effacement of her father, seen as a cash cow & pushed into promotions for which he’s unfit just to satisfy his wife’s ambition – emphasizes the lack of role models in Kitty’s life. She sees men as a means to an end, the end being a comfortable life of trivial social engagements & pretty clothes.
Walter isn’t a completely sympathetic character either. He tells Kitty quite bluntly that he knew she only married him from convenience & that she never loved him. He believed that his love would be enough. His self-abasement is unattractive & his blindness to the consequences of the mismatch of two people with nothing in common, is one of the causes of all that follows. We’re never really sure if he deliberately forced Kitty to accompany him to Mei-tan-fu hoping she would die of cholera or if it was a bluff. His behaviour when they arrive is cold & he seems to care nothing for Kitty or her fate at all. His dedication to his job becomes almost inhuman in contrast to his neglect & unconcern for his wife & he fades into the background of the story just as he’s always been in the background of Kitty’s life.
Maugham isn’t afraid to show Kitty’s unattractive side. She bluntly tells Walter that she’s always found him physically repulsive & she is disgusted by the little Chinese orphans at the convent until she gets to know them. It’s a measure of her growing up that she eventually becomes attached to the orphans & grows to respect the choice of the nuns to leave everything in the pursuit of duty & a different kind of love than any Kitty has ever contemplated. The Mother Superior’s last words to Kitty would have meant nothing to her just weeks earlier on her arrival at Mei-tan-fu but they encapsulate what she’s learnt.
“Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.”