I rented the recent film version of The Painted Veil (starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts) from Netflix sometime last year when I was deeply entrenched in my pregnancy. I vaguely recall watching it at home alone one Sunday and falling asleep on the ending. Oops, that is what pregnancy did to me…made me take naps in the middle of the day, no matter what else was going on.
So, as I was reading this novel, I had random flashbacks to my slumber-hazed memories of the film. In my mind the lead characters Walter and Kitty Fane were Norton and Watts. But while the movie made Walter and Kitty equal “leads” in the story, the novel definitely focuses on Kitty. Kitty is a pretty, young English woman in the early 20th century who clearly enjoys her carefree life of attending parties and socializing and refuses to settle down and get married…that is until her younger and less attractive sister gets engaged and Kitty feels her mother’s disapproval about her unmarried state. In a panic, she quickly accepts a proposal of marriage from Walter Fane, a serious and taciturn bacteriologist, who she has met a few times at parties. Kitty doesn’t love Walter but she sees him as a way out of her looming “old maid” status.
If a man hasn’t what’s necessary to make a woman love him, it’s his fault, not hers.
Walter and Kitty move to China where Walter is doing work as a researcher for the government. Kitty quickly becomes bored in her marriage and her husband’s apparent lack of social standing. She soon becomes involved in an affair with a married man. Walter finds out and gives her an ultimatum: she can either divorce him (and be forever stigmatized as a divorcee) or move with him to the inland China where he has volunteered to help out with a cholera epidemic. Kitty choses to stay married and moves with Walter. This is where the true heart of the novel starts.
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.
“The Painted Veil” was a relatively quick read and I quite enjoyed it. The story focused on a woman character, who while I didn’t like her as a person, kept me engaged. The book makes you think about the choices women make in life and what the ramifications of those choices are. It also makes you think about relationships and what it takes to make them work. I liked “The Painted Veil” more than I liked Maugham’s “Razor’s Edge” which I read earlier this year. I look forward to reading his work “Of Human Bondage” sometime in the future. I highly recommend “The Painted Veil” to anyone looking to read a quick, straight-forward, well written work of classic literature.