To observe how much men have lost one need only look to three authors: Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy and W. Somerset Maugham. The lives of these three giants of English literature spanned a century-and-half, from 1814 (the year Trollope was born) to 1965 (when Maugham died), the death of the latter coinciding with the beginnings of a precipitous civilizational decline, kindled in part by a feminist desire for the privileges of manhood with none of the responsibilities. Trollope’s Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite (1870), Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and The Painted Veil (1925) expose the lie on which this folly is founded.
Each of the three novels centres on a young woman who disastrously chooses a cad over a stable but seemingly more boring rival suitor or husband. Each author conceives the debacle in his own way. There is, however a common thread; woman’s inability to override her biological imperative to mate with alpha bounders, who provide the best genetic material for the success of her offspring, but who also desert them in their hour of greatest need.
Since the 1960s, fiction has all but abandoned this once common and obvious truth. Contemporary plot after plot, conceived in complete ignorance, has women routinely falling for men who can barely dress themselves in the morning, and who hope mere proximity and being nice will win the damsel. Despite thousands of years of biology, this works every time.
The Painted Veil is nothing short of a masterpiece, and rarely have the distinctions between and alpha cad and stable provider and life mate been so poignantly evoked. In the 2006 film based on the book, it’s telling that the focus is on the woman’s ‘moral awakening’ rather than the overwhelming biological urge of females to seek out charmers in the absence of strong fathers and husbands. Maugham understood the dangers of this, to marriage but also to society and civilisation in general, and that it has been lost to contemporary film makers and writers is hardly a surprise. What can the ignorant know of women if they have never witnessed this behaviour as wilfulness or the results as disastrous?
Even though I was not sold on the ending, nor believe this is W. Somerset Maugham’s greatest work, I found myself utterly engaged in the dynamic and morality of the story. I fell in love with Maugham as a teen, reading a dozen of his works, but in the intervening decades have not picked him up. There is always a danger in revisiting the literary heroes of ones’ youth, but in this case my memories were surpassed.