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Lifting the painted veil

William Somerset Maugham was a great doctor-writer, who exposed humanity’s delusion and folly

William Somerset Maugham is sometimes dismissed as middlebrow, but he was a writer of the first rank and The Painted Veil, his novel set during the cholera epidemic in China, has extra resonance during these times.

The Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s essay ‘What our contagion fables are really about’, published recently in The New Yorker, is a scholarly review of the “literature of pestilence”. It turns out that this is a large cannon, which includes Boccaccio’s Decameron, Daniel Defoe’s A Journey of the Plague Year, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Albert Camus’s The Plague, and José Saramago’s Blindness. Lepore didn’t mention W Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. I wasn’t surprised; academic critics have always been sniffy about Maugham. The unchallenged consensus is that Chekhov was the best doctor-writer, but I prefer Maugham.

William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) qualified as a doctor from St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School in 1897 but never practised. He was a prolific author of novels, short stories and plays, and was arguably the most commercially successful author writing in English for most of the first half of the 20th Century. Literary critics have tended to dismiss Maugham as ‘middle-brow’; Maugham himself famously described his work as being “in the very front row of the second rate”. I think he was being disingenuous and over-modest.

George Orwell, now routinely exhibited as the model of how to write good prose, acknowledged his debt to Maugham: “I believe the modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham.” Gore Vidal described Maugham’s Cakes and Ale as “perfect . . . as good as Jane Austen”. I recently re-read Cakes and Ale and thought it the finest short novel in the English language. Maugham, although self-deprecating, knew how good the book was. One evening in the Villa Mauresque (his palatial home on the Côte d’Azur) looking for something to read, he remarked: “What a pity I wrote Cakes and Ale. It would be just the thing.”

Maugham’s theme was humanity: Its capriciousness and unpredictability, its weakness, delusion and folly. “Though I have never much liked men”, he wrote in his memoir The Summing Up, “I have found them so interesting that I am almost incapable of being bored by them.” How did he arrive at such a view of the world? His time at medical school was the making of Maugham the writer: “I learned pretty well everything I know about human nature in the five years I spent at St Thomas’ Hospital.” Bored by the pre-clinical course, he was enthralled by what he saw and heard in the wards and the outpatient clinic: “In those three years, I must have witnessed pretty well every emotion of which man is capable. I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I knew that suffering did not ennoble; it degraded. It made men selfish, mean, petty and suspicious.”

As part of his obstetrics course, Maugham assisted at 63 home deliveries in the slums of Lambeth. He witnessed at first-hand the living conditions of the Victorian poor: “The messenger led you through the dark and silent streets of Lambeth, up stinking alleys and into sinister courts where the police hesitated to penetrate, but where your black bag protected you from harm.” This experience inspired his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, published when he was still a student. “He was lucky”, wrote Gore Vidal, “to have got the tone absolutely right in his first book.” The book was a modest success, enough for Maugham to embark on a full-time writing career.

The Painted Veil tells the story of a mismatched couple, Walter and Kitty Fane, living in Hong Kong in the early 1920s. He is an intense bacteriologist; she is frivolous and bored. Having discovered her adultery, Walter takes her with him to a city decimated by cholera. He works night and day fighting the epidemic; she finds some meaning by working in an orphanage run by French nuns. As in many of his novels, there is a character who acts as a conduit for the author’s own world-weariness and cynicism; this role is filled by the colonial official, Waddington. Walter, worn out by his labours, dies of cholera. His dying words are the last line of Oliver Goldsmith’s An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog: The dog it was that died. Walter wanted to punish the unfaithful Kitty by exposing her to cholera, but instead it was he who contracted the disease.

Like all great writers, Maugham was a great reader. He was inspired by Dante’s Purgatorio, which tells the story of a man plotting to have his unfaithful wife killed. He took the title from Shelley: “Lift not the painted veil, which those who live call life.” The Painted Veil is classic Maugham; his characters are neither entirely good nor entirely bad; they are flawed human beings, victims of events and their own personalities, but still capable of a kind
of nobility. 

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