The Painted Veil (novel)

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The Painted Veil
First US edition cover
Author W. Somerset Maugham
Country United Kingdom
Publisher Heinemann (UK)
Publication date

The Painted Veil is a 1925 novel by British author W. Somerset Maugham. The title is taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley's sonnet which begins "Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life".

The biographer Richard Cordell notes that the book was influenced by Maugham's study of science and his work as a houseman at St Thomas' Hospital.[1] In the Preface to his book, Maugham tells how originally the main characters were called Lane not Fane but a couple of that name in Hong Kong successfully sued the magazine publishers of the initial serialised version for libel and won £250. To avoid similar problems after A. G. M. Fletcher, the then Assistant Colonial Secretary in Hong Kong, also threatened legal action, the name of the colony was changed to Tching-Yen.[2] Later editions reverted to Hong Kong but the name Fane was kept for all editions.

The novel was first published in serialised form in five issues of Cosmopolitan (November 1924 – March 1925). Beginning in May 1925, it was serialised in the United Kingdom in eight parts in Nash's Magazine.

Plot summary

Somerset Maugham uses a third-person – limited, point of view in this story, where Kitty is the Focal character.

Kitty Garstin, a very pretty upper-middle class debutante, squanders her early youth amusing herself at cotillions and social events – during which her domineering mother attempts to arrange a "brilliant match" for her. By age 25, Kitty has flirted with – and declined the marriage proposals of – dozens of suitors. Her mother, convinced that her eldest daughter has "missed her market", urges Kitty to settle for the rather “odd” Walter Fane, a bacteriologist and M.D., who is madly in love with Kitty. In a panic that her much younger – and less attractive – sister, Doris, will upstage her by marrying first, Kitty consents to Walter's ardent marriage proposition with the words, "I suppose so.” Shortly before Doris’ much grander wedding, Kitty and Walter depart as newlyweds to his post in Hong Kong.

Just weeks after settling in the Far East, Kitty meets Charles Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary. He is tall, handsome, able and extremely charming, and they begin to have an affair. Almost two years later, Walter, unsuspecting, and still devoted to his wife, observes Kitty and Charles during an assignation, and the lovers, suspecting they’ve been discovered, reassure themselves that Walter will not intervene in the matter. Charles promises Kitty that, come what may, he will stand by her. Aware that the cuckolded Walter is his administrative inferior, Charles feels confident that the bacteriologist will avoid scandal to protect his career and reputation. For her part, Kitty, who has never felt real affection for her husband, grasps that, in fact, he is fully aware of her infidelity (though he initially refrains from confronting her) and she begins to despise his apparent cowardice. She discerns, however, an ominous change in his demeanor, masked by his "scrupulously polite" behaviour.

Walter suddenly confronts Kitty with an ultimatum: She must either accompany him to the Chinese interior to deal with a cholera epidemic, risking death, or he will file for divorce, with the proviso that he will allow Kitty to divorce him if Dorothy Townsend agrees to divorce Charles and Charles agrees to remarry Kitty immediately. Kitty goes to see Townsend who reveals his perfidy and refuses to leave his wife. Their conversation, when she realises he doesn't wish to make a sacrifice for the relationship, unfolds gradually, as Kitty grasps Charles's true nature. She is surprised to find when she returns home that Walter has already had her clothes packed—he knew Townsend would let her down. Heartbroken and disillusioned, Kitty decides she has no option but to accompany Walter to the cholera-infested mainland of China.

At first suspicious and bitter, Kitty finds herself embarked on a journey of self-appraisal. She meets Waddington, a British deputy commissioner, who provides Kitty with insights as to the unbecoming character of Charles. He further introduces her to the French nuns who are nursing, at great personal risk, the sick and orphaned children of the cholera epidemic. Her husband Walter has immersed himself in the difficulties of managing the cholera crisis. His character is held in high esteem by the nuns and the native officials, due to his self-sacrifice and tenderness towards the suffering children. Kitty, however, remains unable to feel attraction towards him as a man and husband. Kitty meets with the Mother Superior, an individual of great personal force, yet loved and respected. The nun allows Kitty to assist in caring for the older children at the convent, but will not permit her to engage with the sick and dying. Kitty’s regard for her deepens and grows.

Kitty discovers that she is pregnant and suspects that Charles Townsend is the father. Rather than answering Walter’s simple inquiry as to whether he is the father with a “yes”, she tells him the truth – “I don’t know”. She cannot bring herself to deceive her husband again. Kitty has undergone a profound personal transformation. Soon after, Walter falls ill in the epidemic – possibly through experimenting upon himself to find a cure for cholera – and Kitty, at his deathbed, hears his last words.

She returns to Hong Kong where she is met by Dorothy Townsend, Charles's wife, who convinces Kitty to come to stay with them – as Kitty is now mistakenly regarded as a heroine who voluntarily and faithfully followed her husband into great danger. At the Townsend house, much against her intentions, she is seduced by Charles and makes love with him one more time despite admitting he is vain and shallow, much as she once was. She is disgusted with herself and tells him what she thinks of him.

Kitty returns to the UK, en route finding her mother has died. Her father, an only moderately successful barrister, is appointed Chief Justice of a minor British colony in the Caribbean and she persuades him to allow her to accompany him there, where she intends to dedicate her life to him and to ensuring that her child is brought up to avoid the mistakes she had made.

Film adaptations

The novel has been adapted for the screen three times:


  1. Cordell. Richard A. Somerset Maugham at Eighty. College English, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Jan. 1954), pp. 201–207
  2. H. J. Lethbridge. Hong Kong Cadets, 1862–1941, p. 56