The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham
published 1925 ch 58
[Kitty, living in a Chinese city, has made friends with Englishman, Waddington. He takes her to visit his Chinese mistress, a Manchu noblewoman]
Kitty shook hands with her. She was slim in her long embroidered gown and somewhat taller than Kitty, used to the Southern people, had expected. She wore a jacket of pale green silk with tight sleeves that came over her wrists and on her black hair, elaborately dressed, was the head-dress of the Manchu women. Her face was coated with powder and her cheeks from the eyes to the mouth heavily rouged; her plucked eyebrows were a thin dark line and her mouth was scarlet. From this mask her black, slightly slanting, large eyes burned like lakes of liquid jet. She seemed more like an idol than a woman. Her movements were slow and assured. Kitty had the impression that she was slightly shy but very curious. She nodded her head two or three times, looking at Kitty, while Waddington spoke of her. Kitty noticed her hands; they were preternaturally long, very slender, of the colour of ivory; and the exquisite nails were painted. Kitty thought she had never seen anything so lovely as those languid and elegant hands. They suggested the breeding of uncounted centuries…
"What does she do with herself all day long?" asked Kitty.
"She paints a little and sometimes she writes a poem. But she mostly sits. She smokes, but only in moderation, which is fortunate, since one of my duties is to prevent the traffic in opium."
observations: Kitty is shown as rather vain and frivolous, and heedless (“it was not done in her set” to think about Chinese culture), but she has no qualms about visiting a woman who is both foreign and in an irregular relationship. She is unusually unjudgemental for the times – but she is also fascinated, because the Manchu woman and Waddington seem to have achieved a great love story, a real passion, and Kitty fears she herself will never find that.
There are a handful of pictures of Manchu women on the web, all as stunning and fascinating as this one (which is a photograph by John Thomson found on Wikimedia Commons.) You can find artworks here and here, and another photo here.
This is the third oriental robe this week: arranged for those returning from China.
Links up with: The Painted Veil, an intriguing favourite, has featured before, as has another of Maugham’s works. Village life in China here, and Chinese robes on Englishwomen here and here.