I decided to turn to a favorite author for my next book, The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham. I have talked about W. Somerset Maugham before here:
I hadn’t read The Painted Veil before I saw the movie with Ed Norton and Naomi Watts. I wouldn’t normally see a movie like that, but it was based on the book by Maugham, so I bent my rules and watched it. The movie was stunning, so the next time I chose a book to read, I jumped at The Painted Veil.
I wasn’t disappointed. It was the typical W. Somerset Maugham storyline. Kitty Fane married Walter out of desperation, not love. The young and promising doctor was returning to China to work and she jumped at a chance to escape her mother and the life in London. In Hong Kong, however, she met the handsome Charlie Townsend and fell head over heels in love. When Walter discovered her adultery, he gave her the ultimatum: either face divorce, shame and return to her mother’s home or accompany him to Mei-tan-fu, the cholera-infested town suffering from the worst epidemic in years. Given no other choice, Kitty faces Mei-tan-fu and almost certain death.
Here are my favorite quotes from the book:
Although very faithful to the book, there is a primary difference between the movie and the original work. The movie focuses on this quotation as its primary theme:
In the book and in the movie, Kitty says it jokingly, but in the movie, we are shown Walter, enjoying their conversation.
The whole focus of the movie is that one thought, whereas, W. Somerset Maugham had a very different focus for the book. He said as much in the preface he wrote in 1952. He conceived of the story on a trip in Italy. He boarded with a woman and her daughter:
Her daughter gave me an Italian lesson every day. She seemed to me then of mature age, but I do not suppose that she was more than twenty-six. She had had trouble. Her betrothed, an officer, had been killed in Abyssinia and she was consecrated to virginity. It was an understood thing that on her mother’s death Ersilia would enter religion.
The Painted Veil is as much about the French nuns and their vision of peace as it is about Kitty Fane. Here are the quotations that deal with those concepts:
At the end of the book, which is completely missing in the movie, Kitty Fane decides to live a life dedicated to this precept of the nuns:
The only philosophical mention that the nuns get in the movie is a quick retort from Walter:
They also go to young mothers in their homes. They ask them to give their babies to the convent. They offer them money to support their families and persuade them to do it. They’re not just here to run an orphanage, your nuns. They’re turning those children into little Catholics. None of us are in China without a reason.
Considering his leanings toward religion, this quote sounds as if W. Somerset Maugham himself wrote it, but he didn’t. The Painted Veil was written as a much more respectful and loving painting of religion and Catholicism in general.
What the movie cut from the religious aspect of the book, they added to regarding the relationship between Walter and the Colonel Ye. Showing Walter’s good works and influence on the town and the abating epidemic is far more powerful than just hearing second hand about his good works.
The final difference between the book and movie involves a spoiler, so if you wish to encounter the story without a surprise, read no further.
After working in the orphanage for weeks, Kitty is rushed to the infirmary. Walter has caught cholera and is dying. In the movie, Kitty has finally fallen in love with Walter. He asks her to forgive him and she does.
In the book however, Kitty has not fallen in love with Walter. She is merely trying to ease his mind before death. His last words are “The dog it was that died.” This is a reference to the following poem:
AN ELEGY ON THE DEATH OF A MAD DOG by: Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) Good people all, of every sort, Give ear unto my song; And if you find it wondrous short,- It cannot hold you long. In Islington there was a man, Of whom the world might say That still a godly race he ran,- Whene'er he went to pray. A kind and gentle heart he had, To comfort friends and foes; The naked every day he clad,- When he put on his clothes. And in that town a dog was found, As many dogs there be, Both mongrel, puppy, whelp, and hound, And curs of low degree. The dog and man at first were friends; But when a pique began, The dog, to gain some private ends, Went mad, and bit the man. Around from all the neighboring streets, The wondering neighbors ran, And swore the dog had lost his wits To bite so good a man. The wound it seemed both sore and sad To every Christian eye; And while they swore the dog was mad They swore the man would die. But soon a wonder came to light, That showed the rogues they lied; The man recovered of the bite, The dog it was that died.
Did Walter consider himself the mad dog in that poem or the good man? Considering what Kitty did to him, I would think that Walter was the good man, but then he seriously tried to kill his wife and himself by taking them to Mei-tan-fu in the middle of a cholera epidemic. Maybe Walter considered himself the mad dog and that is why he had to die in the end.
Personally, I liked the Kitty Fane of the movie better than the Kitty Fane of the book. Despite the differences between the movie and the book, both are beautiful and magnificent stories. I recommend seeing the movie first and then reading the book because that is how I did it, but I’m sure either way provides two enjoyable works of art.
Here is the movie trailer: