A fascinating story, but sometimes badly written with odd similes (“The blue of the sky was clear like a child’s heart”) and convoluted sentences that are needlessly back-to-front and without additional punctuation to clarify (“I like the things that the people like among whom I’ve lived all my life”).
It might seem like a standard morality tale, but is actually more complex.
Kitty Fane is a shallow upper middle class girl, who marries a dull man she barely knows and doesn’t love in order to get away from her parents and beat her younger sister to the altar. They go to Hong Kong, where he is a bacteriologist, around the 1920s. (Maugham studied medicine for 5 years and travelled in China, so was familiar with the background.) When Walter discovers she is having an affair, he takes her to a remote village in central China where a cholera epidemic is raging, whether for revenge, punishment or mutual death is uncertain. Once there, agnostic Kitty volunteers at a Catholic orphanage (“I describe myself as being a member of the Church of England which I suppose is an inoffensive way of saying that you don’t believe in anything very much”), where she may or may not learn the error of her ways.
It is hard to find any redeeming qualities in Kitty: she sees her father and then husband purely as sources of money, is utterly selfish and self-centered and repeatedly blames others for her problems (“It’s not my fault that you were such an ass”), whilst convincing herself she is empathetic (wanting Walter to forgive her so that HE can be at peace). She never fully overcomes her physical revulsion of the Chinese (though that would not have been so unusual at the time) or the disabled girl (“it”). At times she appears on the brink of self-realisation and reform, but I’m not convinced she achieves it. Thinking of the nuns, “Though their way of life profoundly moved her, the faith which occasioned it left her untouched”; she wants to forget Charlie, not be forgiven for her adultery.
Walter is scrupulously polite, but charmless and cold. Even before the affair, Kitty noticed “He treated her... as though she were a fellow house-guest in a country house” and later, “his self-control was inhuman” (but was it?). He is perhaps the most interesting character, but certainly not likeable or easy to fathom.
Charlie is just a stereotypical deceitful but charming womaniser who twists things as much as Kitty does.
In many ways the only really good character is Waddington (the nuns are too obvious), an alcoholic customs official in the choleric village, with a shady private life, but who helps the nuns and tries to help Kitty. “His personality had developed in eccentric freedom.” He (and the nuns) is the only person who really understands anyone else; he is a very shrewd judge of character, and although he enjoys a little teasing, his motives are actually kind-hearted, partly because he cares more about beauty (in its broadest sense) than virtue.
I think this could have been a good book, but it needs major rewriting to attain that status, and here are some examples of why:
Paragraph opens, “'I'm not very well-educated and I'm not very clever. I'm just a perfectly ordinary young woman. I like the things that the people like among whom I've lived all my life. I like dancing and tennis and theatres and I like the men who play games.’”
Chapter 23, page 54
Paragraph opens, “Though Kitty had met his wife at various tea parties she had been some weeks in Hong Kong before she saw Charles Townsend. She was introduced to him only when with her husband she went to dine at his house.”
Chapter 14, page 28
Paragraph opens, “Walter did not as usual when they were dining out give her a little smiling glance now and then. He never looked at her.”
Chapter 21, page 46
A long paragraph describing a cold husband who was tender with his patients continues, “He was at his best when you were ill; he was too intelligent to exasperate, and his touch was pleasant, cool and soothing. By some magic he seemed able by his mere presence to relieve your suffering. She knew that she would never see again in his eyes the look of affection which she had once been so used to that she found it merely exasperating.”
Chapter 44, Page 105
Towards the end of a long paragraph where a wife considers her husband’s attitude to children, “she knew that he had desperately wanted her to bear a child, but she had never suspected from his reticence that he was capable with a baby of showing without embarrassment a charming and playful tenderness.”
Chapter 45, page 107