If I had to pick a king of women I’d call a draw between Vermeer, the 17th century painter, and Thomas Hardy, novelist and poet. Both had an outstanding capacity to take women’s interior lives seriously, to see individual women as distinct, intense and complex, and far from corresponding to any feminine stereotype. Whether it’s Vermeer’s young woman with a pearl necklace, Eustacia Venn in Hardy’s The Woodlanders or his mournful poems about his wife Emma’s death, these are moving, emotionally astute portraits.
But while Vermeer seems to have been a decent husband, Hardy was not. A new lengthy biography about the writer reveals that the searing emotional intelligence, generosity and respect with which he treated women on the page was not matched off it. He was a serial cheater, obsessed with ever-younger models even as he climbed into old age.
By the time she died, his wife Emma was so eccentric and overwrought that she seems to have been mad, and it is plausible that she was driven so by old Tom himself. The last straw for Emma was the affair with Florence Dugdale, a typist, whom Hardy met in 1904 when she was 26 and he was 64. By 1912, the three were sharing a house, creating an atmosphere of nasty swirling weirdness. ‘I wonder how I came to write like that,’ he once mused to a friend miserably on the contrast between his literary synergies with women and the failure of his marriage. I’m willing to bet that he writes far better than any man alive today, but Hardy the sensitive scholar of women cum dangerous cad is a type that is much more present.
Since #metoo in particular, when a certain class of men came out in droves as ‘allies’, women have been treated to the ministrations of those who profess to be ultra-aware of our issues, from endometriosis to objectification.