Cultural Caviar

Mary Neal Lives On

January 13, 2018

A full analysis of, or commentary on, these brief passages would quite possibly be of book length. For myself, I feel a profound cleavage between my own generation and that of young adults today: I do not understand, and do not really like, their tastes, their ambitions, their enjoyments, their sorrows, their opinions, or even their humor. But then I could say that of my own generation also: I never really belonged to it, or wanted to belong to it. I have always been a fish out of water, ever since I can remember.

What is striking about Mary Neal’s article is how little self-examination there is in it by comparison with criticism of her Victorian upbringing. Her complaints seem pretty trivial to me, the main one being that her mother did not occupy herself, or preoccupy herself, with her daughter as much as she should have done. In fact, her childhood seems to have been a fortunate one; Mary Neal’s misfortune was her character. Like me, she was born a fish out of water:

I detested old men who made a fuss of me…. This phobia has persisted all my life, and I think it originated in my fear and dislike of my Grandfather’s contemporaries. I can see them now sitting round a table when we had a dinner party. They were very fat; all had two, most had three, chins, which hung down over their waistcoats. They were red-faced and had bulging eyes.

As a basis for criticism of a whole society and way of life, and explanation of personal difficulties that evidently lasted seventy years, this seems to me somewhat flimsy and even egotistical—for she alleges no other very traumatic events.

Mary Neal was a very modern figure insofar as she confounded personal dissatisfactions with social ills. There were, of course, many social ills in her time, as there are in ours, but a little girl being made a fuss of by old men because she was pretty was not one of them. We ought always to try honestly to distinguish between our personal aversions and social ills, but we seldom do.

This, of course, is because there had never been a time when reality, reality, and ever more reality had been the cry. On the contrary, reality might almost be defined as that which we constantly seek to escape from.

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