I was pleasantly surprised by this book. One of my favourite films is the adaptation made of it in 2006, which is both beautiful and heartbreaking. For years, however, I’ve been under the impression that I would really dislike the novel. The film has a sort of slow, ponderous beauty to it which I thought might be stodgy and dry when written down.
Oh, how wrong I was.
But to get to the matter of the story. It is the tale of a youngish woman in the 1920s who, realising that she is running out of time to make a successful marriage, marries a government bacteriologist who works in Hong Kong. He loves her, but is incredibly awkward and shy, and we never really get to grips with what he is thinking.
Being bored, she has an affair with a far more attractive man. Her husband finds out and makes her a deal: either he will divorce her (which would have been a massive disgrace in those days), or she can come with him to Mei-tan-fu, a part of mainland China which is suffering from cholera. She chooses to go with him.
At this stage the film and novel somewhat get away from each other: in the first, she undertakes work with the local nuns and *SPOILERS* falls in love with her husband, in the second she undertakes work with the local nuns and *SPOILERS* begins to find a sense of herself which is independent from men and from what her mother has told her. She also does not fall back in love with her husband, seeing him until the end as somewhat malevollant.
Maugham (who, by the way, seems to have had an amazing life, being first a doctor, then a novelist, an ambulance driver in WWI, and a spy), writes at the beginning of the book that the story is based on another story which he learned from a young woman called Ersilia who was teaching him Italian. There are some lines in Dante’s Purgatorio which Ersilia told him related to Pia, a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband suspected her of adultery and who took her to his castle in the Maremma where he was sure she would die of the noxious vapours (when she did not, he threw her out of a window). Sometimes the inspiration which authors get for their stories is really fascinating, and while it seems that Maugham’s book fits more closely with his original inspiration I think that the film is still well worth watching. Nevertheless, and surprisingly to me, I think I prefer the novel to the film.