Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil (1925)

Another plague book. This one has taken me by surprise. It’s an excellent novel, one of the best by Maugham. In earlier years I read him a lot, but not Painted Veil until now. There is a movie version from 2006 starring Naomi Watts and Robert Norton. Well worth seeing. Watts is superb. The 1934 version with Greta Garbo is a complete bust.

The core of the story is set in a Chinese city, Mei-Tan-Fu (imaginary), about 500 miles from Hong Kong. Cholera is raging, “killing them like flies.” The bodies of the dead cannot be buried fast enough. Some lie in the streets. Death is “taking lives like a gardner digging up potatoes.” An English doctor and microbiologist is posted to the city by the colonial government. He is the city’s best hope for aiding the sick and ending the disease. A convent of French nuns cares for plague-stricken and orphans. The previous doctor/missionary died of the disease. The new doctor’s wife is forced to come along by circumstances. Her husband caught her in a love affair and her lover dumped her. The chances that both will die of cholera are high.

The doctor, Walter Fane, married Kitty Garstin after a short courtship. He is hopelessly in love with her and in a hurry, a bad combination. He is a researcher for the colonial government in Hong Kong and has come to London to find a wife. Kitty marries him though she doesn’t love or like him and finds him boring. Beautiful and charming but unmarried at 25 (and that means for an Englishwoman with social ambitions, desperate), Kitty accepts. A few weeks into her married life in Hong Kong, she falls in love with Charlie Townsend, a high government official. Two years into their marriage Walter discovers them in bed together.

He offers Kitty this deal: they stay married and she comes with him to Mei-Tan-Fu. She can come as his wife. Alternatively he will give her a quiet divorce on condition that Townsend write a letter promising to leave his wife and to marry Kitty. At first glance she’s delighted and opts for a new life with her lover. But Walter knows Townsend. He also knows that Kitty is foolish, shallow, trivial, clueless. Sure enough, Charlie cleaves, or continues to cleave, unto his wife, and leaves Kitty at the mercy of one of two unforgiving forces: society or her husband. Cholera being preferable to the social position of a dumped women, Kitty agrees to go with Walter. Given the dangers, it’s not clear to her whether this is a grudging acceptance of his wayward wife, or a suicide pact.

So, here is the set-up for the plague to intervene, show its face and work its effects on people placed in its force field—upturn their values, create character, illuminations, conversions, while the most probable possibility looms constantly: that the plague will settle their marital dilemma by killing one or the other or both. Walter seems indifferent to those options; one is as welcome to him as the other. He shows only contempt for Kitty and allows her to believe that he wants her dead and has brought her along for that purpose.

It’s different from Camus’s plague, which sets in like a season of the year and stays until it’s finished. Walter seeks out this plague, injects himself into it and drags his wife along. It becomes an instrument to settle his marital problems.

Some of the development is predictable: Walter, dull and ordinary in Kitty’s eyes, now shows a side she had not suspected before: strength, courage, character. He is positioned to save lives and even end the plague (which he does in the 2006 movie, but not in the novel). He has success caring for the sick; he improves conditions; his cholera research flourishes. He is admired by the townspeople and respected by the convent of French nuns in the city. Kitty is isolated and despised by her husband. She comes up against the emptiness of her character. Desperate to fill that vacuum, she visits the nuns, whose duty is to care for the sick and orphans.

The characters are impressive, complex (as opposed to Camus’s The Plague, where the characters are attitudes wearing clothes, being moved around like figures on some planning table in a war room). Maugham is much more interested in psychology, motivation, emotion.

Two memorable characters: Waddington, the government rep. in the city. At first impression, a comic little man, short and ugly, his life in a small remote colony made bearable by whiskey, opium and a Manchurian princess, who is unaccountably devoted to him, shares his life, had no other. (Kitty: “What does she do when you’re not here?” Waddington: “Nothing.” K: “What does she think about?” W: “Nothing.”) Waddington is the kind of man Kitty’s mother “would never have invited to dinner,” but he turns into a close friend to Kitty, a much more serious and wise character than at first glance.

The most impressive character is the French Abbess of the monastery, which is hospital, orphan shelter and ground zero of the epidemic. The mother superior “belongs to one of the greatest families in France”. In the 2006 film, the abbess is played by Diana Rigg—a brilliant bit of casting. Even in a nun’s habit she has aura and charisma: luminous eyes, wisdom and shrewdness in her expression, even a reminder of the young woman’s sensuality. The actress brings to life in a few brief shots this description by the novel’s narrator: “It was the eyes which gave her face its intense and tragic character. They were very large, black, and though not exactly cold, by their calm steadiness strangely compelling. But the most striking thing about her was the air she had of authority tempered by Christian charity; you felt in her the habit of command. She had a native dignity that inspired awe.” A comment of the abbess that stuck with me: she reminisces on a conversation years before when she told her mother of her plans to become a nun. Her mother says, “I do not think that you will die without having done something that will endure.” It wasn’t said in the context of facing a plague, but that’s where it resonates: the time separating you from the universal human death sentence is drastically shortened; you don’t endure, and your chance of doing something that does is running out. (It’s an issue in The Seventh Seal, my next plague story.) Kitty asks if she regrets giving up her worldly life. The abbess: “Never. I have exchanged a life that was trivial and worthless for one of sacrifice and prayer.”

Kitty has her secrets, and feels that the abbess sees right through her. The abbess refuses her offer to serve and help in the orphanage. Kitty insists. She fastens on to the monastery like a would-be convert nun turned away who won’t leave and prostrates herself at the door to the monastery. It is the place where she’ll find purpose and redemption. “She felt shut out not only from that poor little convent, but from some mysterious garden of the spirit after which with all her soul she hankered.” Kitty senses that service is the way to a new life. The convent becomes her lifeline. And so the plague turns into the staging ground of her maturing. This dangerous, self-sacrificing service for the orphans transforms her life into something it had never been: authentic, grounded in real human affection, in “compassion and charity.” The orphans love her in a way no one ever had and vice versa.

They love Walter too. Kitty, still spurned and put down by her husband, marvels at the affection he brings to his work and how he wins the love of those who benefit. “She knew now how immense was his capacity for loving.” He was showing the sick and dying what he no longer showed to her. She despised him earlier but now sees in him “a strange and unattractive greatness.” So the positive energies of marriage get projected on both sides onto the plague sufferers and the plague-threatened, while their marriage is poisoned and dying—except that she’s pregnant (the child is probably Charlie’s).

In the 2006 movie she wins back her husband’s affection. Not so in the novel. The movie has them reconcile; the book doesn’t. Walter dies of the plague, a hero and martyr to the city. Kitty wants to stay on, but the abbess sends her away with these words of wisdom: “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.”

The scenes in Mei-Tan-Fu amount to a kind of reverse Shangri-La, the utopian setting of the 1937 film, Lost Horizon turned diabolic and murderous. But the plague city of Mei-tan-fu, like Shangri-La, has a transformative power over the people who live in its holocaust: the one is celestial; the other terrifying. The result of both is rediscovery of a lost or hidden sense of human worth.

Maugham’s language and voice change in the plague scenes. In many passages he slips into a lyrical mode that is very unusual for Maugham, whose voice is generally ironic and detached. The landscape descriptions, the monument at the entry to the cemetery (an arch to “a virtuous widow”) create a sense of mystery and buddhistic other-world without being clichéd (“the mysterious East”). Some will find the lush language overdone (I don’t).

Also unusual, in fact I believe unique, for Maugham is the role of the Christian ethos of the community of nuns. It is what Kitty gains from the experience. It remains with her as a grounding force in her life.

Kitty returns to Hong Kong, where she implausibly accepts an invitation from Charlie Townsend’s wife to stay with them. Where is the newly grounded, self-aware woman, who ought to feel how grotesque it would be to stay with her former lover’s family? Sure enough, after a couple days, Charlie shows up, first romances her, then rapes her. She gives in after resisting. Worth reading it for its ambiguity and the psychology of her motives (chapter 75).

But the rape also sobers her up. The next day she reviles Charlie (too bad the movie didn’t include this scene. I’d love to see Naomi Watts play it) and leaves for England. The rest is far more complex and interesting than the short-circuit that ends the 2006 movie. But the lasting effect of her transformation/education during the plague is her plan to raise her child: “I’m going to bring up my daughter so that she’s free and can stand on her own feet. I’m not going to bring a child into the world, and love her, and bring her up, just so that some man may want to sleep with her so much that he’s willing to provide her with board and lodging for the rest of her life.” She will live the life of “compassion and charity” that she learned from the nuns. The last lines of the book: “Perhaps her faults and follies, the unhappiness she had suffered, were not entirely vain if she could follow the path that now she dimly discerned before her, not the path that kind funny old Waddington had spoken of that led nowhere [the “Tao”], but the path those dear nuns at the convent followed so humbly, the path that led to peace.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: