Safe haven

Por Luz Grané.

When I started reading The painted veil[1] the only thing I could think of was the unfortunate life of Kitty. Not in a way of making her appear as a victim, but more in the sense of empathy for this woman who clearly had no choice but to marry in order to pay her expenses. This does not justify her arrogance or dishonesty, there must be plenty of women who had similar life circumstances and did not behave in such a way. But it still rings a bell that for the first half of the book what everyone talks about is marriage. It seems to be the only possibility in life (either that or becoming a nun). I am not writing to criticise the way society existed in the nineteenth century however, but more to observe other aspects of this novel which are connected to this context.

I was asked to write about what I thought of this book. The answer is, I don’t know. I absolutely have no clue. Maybe because there are so many topics to discuss these pages will not be enough. Still, I would like to center on one particular theme that resonated in my mind: the meaning of life. In other words, why are we in this world? And, regarding the novel, what is their goal in life? What is Kitty trying to accomplish?

For what I have interpreted, it seems like the characters are always looking for something. In other words, they are living in a constant state of search: seeking for a goal in life. It is possible to analyze this aspect on Kitty’s personality throughout the whole book.

At the beginning of the novel her goal in life was to find a husband. Having been praised for her beauty since she was a little girl, one would have thought that she would have achieved this goal before 25 (“old age” for the 1800). This is not the case. As the first chapters unfold, Kitty shows rejection for many of the men who proposed. Nevertheless, in a hurry, she finally accepts a bacteriologist called Walter Fane. As the story develops the reader can realise that Fane’s feelings were deep and true in contrast to Kitty’s, who considered him a foolish, quiet and dull person. The cause of her acceptance to the marringly question was not only her age, but also her younger sister’s engagement which put her in a place of social shame. Finally, Kitty gets married and leaves for Hong Kong due to Fane’s job. Now the question is, what happens when the goal is fulfilled? A person that has mastered the art of living in the moment would say: enjoy it. In other words, rejoice in what you have accomplished. But, as soon as Kitty gets to London, she starts meeting with another man. In other words, she seeks for a new objective in life: lust and passion.

After a couple of dinners and soirées with the members of the English society in Hong Kong, Kitty meets Charlie Townsend. He was a married man working for the government of the English colony, which gave him prestige and wealth. What began as conversation and playful comments quickly escalated and turned into an affair, maintained for over a year. As it is expected, she develops a very strong affection towards Mr. Townsend. The description of her feelings for the man are “(…) a sweet pain in the heart (…)”[2], and at the beginning of the book she constantly shows that “[s]he could only think of her lover.”[3] Therefore, we could conclude that Kitty was deeply in love, to such an extent that she desired to divorce Fane in order to stay with Charlie. That is, to fulfill this new goal: happiness with Mr. Townsend. Yet, after being caught by Walter this dream turned to pieces. With Charlie’s not willing to divorce his wife, Kitty is forced to leave Hong Kong in order to travel with her husband to Mei Tan Fu: the deadliest city in China at the moment due to the cholera epidemic.

After learning about the affair Walter was filled with rage: a quiet rage. He did not speak of his feelings. Anyhow, during the course of ordinary life, he showed some signs of his true sentiment. For instance, not looking at Kitty as he sometimes did or even speaking to her more than necessary during meals. She observed the state of her husband and came to a conclusion: he was suffering from a broken heart. In other words, he was disappointed in Kitty because he was not corresponded in the same depth of his love for her.

At the same time, Kitty continued learning about the singularities of the city of Mei Tan Fu. Mainly, getting to know the nuns in city’s small French convent. There, she discovered something close to a small paradise in the middle of hell: death and desperation coexisting with peace and silence. More specifically, she found a safe haven surrounded by the nuns and the affection she received. Observing this situation and her own feelings, Kitty understood that the goal or meaning of her life was love. She cherished the nuns so much that when she was offered to go back home after Walter’s sudden death, she tried to stay. The reason was not only the adoration for the convent, but also the realisation that “she wanted to stay because she had nowhere else to go”[4]. In other words, Kitty had finally found love and acceptance, but knew that a similar place did not exist outside of the convent walls.

Finally, after Walter’s death, Kitty is forced to leave and return to London. As soon as she arrives, her father tells her that he would be leaving for a job in the Bahamas. Kitty begs her father to let her go with him and try to make amends for the ingratitude towards her father’s effort to support his daughters. Moreover, she asks him “won’t you let me try to make you love me?”[5], meaning a deep desire to find that love and “safe haven” again.

What Kitty was actually looking for was love and happiness. That is the meaning of life. At the beginning of the story she looks for happiness the conventional way: getting a husband before “old age”. Nevertheless, as we keep on reading she finds love in other places. For instance, wanting to stay at the convent and reconnecting with her father. The bottom line is: what we are all looking for, as Kitty, is that “safe haven”. This “safe haven” can be found or built in many different places. The important touch is that love and affection should be present.

Luz Grané

[1] Somerset Maugham, W. The Painted Veil (2001) London: Vintage Classics

[2] Ibidem page 10

[3] Ibidem page 6

[4] Ibidem page 174

[5] Ibidem page 211