The idea for this story came to Maugham after reading in Dante’s Inferno the story of Pia whose husband suspected her of adultery and took her to his castle in the Maremma where he hoped she would die of the noxious vapours there. He thought of using it in a story but it was only when he made a long journey in China that he found the setting in which the story might plausibly happen.
The husband and wife in Maugham’s story are Kitty and Walter Fane. Walter, a bacteriologist, is a serious young man and Kitty has only married him in order to be married before her younger sister. When they move to Hong Kong she grows to despise him a little and becomes not precisely bored by him so much as indifferent and has an affair with Charles Townsend, the womanising Assistant Colonial Secretary. When Walter discovers the affair, and Charles refuses to leave his wife Kitty has no option other than to accompany Walter to Mei -tan-fu where there is a cholera epidemic. She is convinced he is taking her to such a dangerous place because he desires her death.
After a long journey they arrive in the remote Chinese village and Walter practically ignores her. Kitty is at first very bitter, miserable and lonely but after meeting Waddington, the Deputy Commissioner who introduces her to the French nuns she sees another side to Walter and she volunteers to help at the orphanage run by the nuns. As the cholera rages both Kitty and Walter are at risk.
Maugham’s knowledge of China is evident in the amount of detail in the book – the scenery, the characters, the dialogue and the lifestyle all convince me that I am in the China and London of the 1920s:
The bungalow stood half way down a steep hill and from her window she saw the narrow river below her and opposite, the city. The dawn had just broken and from the river rose a white mist shrouding the junks that lay moored close to one another like peas in a pod. There were hundreds of them, and they were silent, mysterious in that ghostly light, and you had a feeling that their crews lay under an enchantment, for it seemed that it was not sleep, but something strange and terrible, that held them so still and mute.
The morning drew on and the sun touched the mist so that it shone whitely like the ghost of snow on a dying star. Though on the river it was light so that you could discern palely the lines of the crowed junks and the thick forests of their masts, in front it was a shining wall the eye could not pierce. But suddenly from that white cloud, a tall, grim and massive bastion emerged. It seemed merely not to be made visible by the all-discovering sun but rather to rise out of nothing at the touch of a magic wand. It towered, the stronghold of a cruel and barbaric race, over the river. …
This was no fortress, nor temple, but the magic palace of some emperor of the gods where no man might enter. It was too airy, fantastic and insubstantial to be the work of human hands; it was the fabric of a dream.
I think I’d like to see the film, also called The Painted Veil, starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, filmed in China the scenery looks absolutely beautiful. I just hope it lives up to my vision of the book.