In the summer of 1925, romantically minded Lu Xiaoman wrote in her diary: ‘Feeling tired, I stayed in bed and finished The Painted Veil, which made me very sad, though I know I may not be so unfortunate as the heroine. Through love, she struggles through thousands of hardships to achieve what she seeks. Yet not many days of happy reunion have passed before her man is dead, leaving her to suffer in solitude with her aged father for her remaining years. Mo! Do you think life is really so cruel? I don’t know why I should be so sad reading about these people that I wept and wept in heartache to this moment. More than that, I trembled in thinking of you, wishing only that such misfortunes do not befall us.’footnote1

A couple of months later, Lu Xiaoman and Xu Zhimo became engaged, and in another two they married.footnote2 Five years later, Xu Zhimo died in an air-crash. Lu Xiaoman’s anguish has been popularly interpreted as a bad omen, though it’s easy enough for anyone in love to feel heartache, or tremble uncontrollably. Actually, her diary shows how naïve she was. Take Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. If Lin Huiyin had been reading it, you can be sure no tears would have been shed.footnote3 Let alone Eileen Chang. She must be Maugham’s soulmate par excellence. When it comes to love, death, truth or reality, it is as if Maugham was holding Eileen Chang’s hand with one of his while writing with the other.footnote4

Lu Xiaoman’s distorted summary of The Painted Veil is evidence that she didn’t read it very carefully; a diary is, after all, a subjectively oriented form. The inspiration for the novel, Maugham explained in his preface, came from a legend associated with Dante’s Purgatorio. ‘Pia was a gentle woman of Siena whose husband, suspecting her of adultery and afraid on account of her family to put her to death, took her down to his castle in the Maremma, the noxious vapours of which he was confident would do the trick; but she took so long to die that he grew impatient and had her thrown out of the window.’ How impossible it would have been for someone like Maugham to rework such a murderous tale into a heart-wrenching romance.

His story goes like this. About a century ago in our time, Kitty, an ambitious beauty scared of falling into the second rank of the marriage market, hastily accepts the hand of Walter, a bacteriologist. After their marriage, she follows him to Hong Kong, where she soon falls for Charlie, the far-better looking Assistant Colonial Secretary there. Kitty and Charlie are caught in flagrante by Walter, who gives her two options. He will divorce her if she is going to marry Charlie; otherwise, she must follow him to Mei-tan-fu, in the cholera-stricken interior of China. There is no way the playboy Charlie will divorce his wife. A dispirited Kitty follows Walter to the region of the epidemic. Walter works silently day and night, and Kitty discovers a life of her own in a convent taking care of the sick, while Charlie fades from her mind. Yet though everyone else in the epicentre adores or even worships Walter, she can never really fall in love with him. She has lived close to cholera and been transformed through it, but as Proust remarked, love is not open to persuasion.

In the second half of the novel, Kitty faints due to pregnancy. The mother superior urges Walter to go home. He asks in a shivering voice: ‘Am I the father?’ Kitty knows that if she says yes, she will possess Walter again, which is what he has always longed for. After all, he loves her so deeply that if only she offers him an excuse, he will forgive everything. Plus, she herself needs his forgiveness. Yet she is unable to say yes. She doesn’t know why, but she simply can’t say it. In the end, she merely answers: ‘I don’t know’. A few days later, Walter is infected with cholera. Dying under Kitty’s fearful stare and pleading, his last words are: ‘The dog it was that died.’ He is repeating the last line of Goldsmith’s poem, An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog, which tells the story of a good-hearted man who takes in a dog. The dog catches rabies and bites him; but in the end, the man survives and ‘the dog it was that died’. Walter has earlier admitted that his intention in bringing Kitty to the epicentre was to get her infected and see her die of cholera. Later, his friends believe that he got himself infected, out of his own choice, in his laboratory.

Kitty, having survived and returned to Hong Kong, finds herself in bed with Charlie once again, driven by desire while despising herself. Getting up, she departs from Hong Kong with no return. The story has been adapted for the big screen several times. Hollywood’s treatment is similar to Lu Xiaoman’s understanding of it, jerking every possible string to plunge actors and audience into tears; that would be another topic.

Earlier on, Kitty has a confrontation with Walter, after she has been caught in her affair with Charlie. Kitty says, ‘It was a mistake that I ever married you. I never should have done it, I was a fool. I never cared for you. We never had anything in common.’ To which, Walter replies with a smile. ‘I had no illusions about you,’ he says. ‘I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew that your aims and ideals were vulgar and commonplace. But I loved you. I knew that you were second-rate. But I loved you.’ The conversation takes place before they set off for the region of the epidemic. Love, or more precisely, recognition of lovelessness, does not need the helping hand of cholera. There, García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera is the most representative text. Here, cholera does not change love; it is a metaphor of love. So, what is the plague doing in The Painted Veil? Or, what is a plague?