If you are a writer, nothing is more confusing than the difference between the things you have to say and the things you are allowed to print. Talking to an intelligent girl, the famous “jeune fille” who is the excuse for the great Hush! Hush! in print, you find, not that you have to winnow your words and leave out all the essentials, but that she, the innocent girl in question, is flinging all sorts of fierce questions at your head, in all sorts of shameless language, demanding all sorts of impossible answers. You think to yourself: My heaven, this is the innocent young thing on whose behalf books are suppressed! And you wonder: How on earth am I to answer her?
You decide the only way to answer her is straightforward. She smells an evasion in an instant and despises you for it. She is no fool, this innocent maiden. Far from it. And she loathes an evasion. Talking to her father in the sanctum of his study, you have to winnow your words and watch your step, the old boy is so nervous, so tremulous lest anything be said that should hurt his feelings. But once away in the drawing-room or the garden, the innocent maiden looks at you anxiously, and it is all you can do to prevent her saying crudely: “Please don’t be annoyed with Daddy. You see he is like that, and we have to put up with him.” Or else from blurting out: “Daddy’s an old fool, but he is a dear, isn’t he?”
It is a queer reversal of the Victorian order. Father winces and bridles and trembles in his study or his library, and the innocent maiden knocks you flat with her outspokenness in the conservatory. And you have to admit that she is the man of the two: of the three, maybe. Especially when she says, rather sternly: “I hope you didn’t let Daddy, see what you thought of him!” “But what do I think of him?” I gasp. “Oh, it’s fairly obvious!” she replies coolly, and dismisses the point.
I admit the young are a little younger than I am; or a little older, which is it? I really haven’t spent my years cultivating prunes and prisms; yet, confronted with a young thing of twenty-two, I often find myself with a prune-stone in my mouth, and I don’t know what to do with it.
“Why. is Daddy like that?” she says, and there is genuine pain in the question. “Like what?” you ask.—”Oh, you know what I mean! Like a baby ostrich with his head in the sand! It only makes his rear so much the more conspicuous. And it’s a pity, because he’s awfully intelligent in other ways.”
Now what is a man to answer?—“Why are they like that?” she insists. “Who?” say I. “Men!” she says. “Men like Daddy!” “I suppose it’s a sort of funk,” say I. “Exactly!” she pounces on me like a panther. “But what is there to be in a funk about?”
I have to confess I don’t know. “Of course not!” she says. “There’s nothing at all to be in a funk about. So why can’t we make him see it?”
When the younger generation, usually the feminine half of it, in her early twenties, starts firing off “Whys?” at me, I give in. Anything crosses her in the least and she takes aim at it with the deadly little pistol of her enquiring spirit and says: “Why?” She is a deadly shot: Billy the Kid is nothing to her; she hits the nail on the head every time. “Now why can’t I talk like a sensible human being to Daddy?” “I suppose he thinks it is a little early for you to be quite so sensible,” say I mildly. “Cheek! What cheek of him to think he can measure out the amount of sense I ought to have!” she cries. “Why does he think it?”
Why indeed? But once you start whying, there’s no end to it. A hundred years ago, a few reformers piped up timorously: Why is man so infinitely superior to woman? And on the slow years came the whisper: He isn’t! Then the poor padded young of those days roused up: Why are fathers always in the right? And the end of the century confessed that they weren’t. Since then, the innocent maiden has ceased to be anaemic—all maidens were more or less anaemic, thirty years ago—and though she is no less innocent, but probably more so, than her stuffy grandmother or mother before her, there isn’t a thing she hasn’t shot her “Why?” at, or her “Wherefore?”—the innocent maiden of today. And digging implements are called by their bare, their barest names. “Why should Daddy put his foot down about love? He’s been a prize muff at it himself, judging from Mother.”
It’s terrible, if all the sanctifications have to sit there like celluloid Aunt Sallies while the young take pot shots at them. A real straight “Why?” aimed by sweet and twenty, goes clean through them. Nothing but celluloid and looking so important: really, why—?
The answer seems to be, Bogey! The elderly, today, seem to be ridden by a bogey, they grovel before the fetish of human wickedness. Every young man is out to “ruin” every young maiden. Bogey! The young maiden knows a thing or two about that. She’s not quite the raw egg she’s supposed to be in the first place. And as for most young men, they’re only too nice, and it would grieve them bitterly to “ruin” any young maid, even if they Imew exactly how to set about it. Of which the young maiden is perfectly aware, and: “Why can’t Daddy see it?”—He can, really. But he is so wedded to his Bogey, that once the young man’s back is turned, the old boy can see in the young boy nothing but a danger, a danger to my daughter! Wickedness in other people is an idée fixe of the elderly.—Ah, my boy, you will find that in life every man’s hand is against you!
—As a matter of fact, my boy finds nothing of the sort. Every man has to struggle for himself, true. But most people are willing to give a bit of help where they can. The world may really be a bogey. But that isn’t because individuals are wicked villains. At least ninety-nine per cent of individuals in this country, and in any other country, as far as we have ever seen, are perfectly decent people who have a certain amount of struggle to get along, but who don’t want to do anybody any harm if they can help it.
This seems to be the general experience of the young, and so they can’t appreciate the bogey of human wickedness which seems to dominate the minds of the old in their relation to the succeeding generation. The young ask: “What, exactly, is this Bogey, this wickedness we are to be shielded from?”—And the old only reply: “Of course, there is no danger to us. But to you, who are young and inexperienced—!”
And the young, naturally, see nothing but pure hypocrisy. They have no desire to be shielded. If the Bogey exists, they would like to set eyes on him, to take the measure of this famous “wickedness.” But since they never come across it; since they find meanness and emptiness the worst crimes; they decide that the Bogey doesn’t and never did exist, that he is an invention of the elderly spirit, the last stupid stick with which the old can beat the young and feel self-justified.—Of course it’s perfectly hopeless with Mother and Daddy; one has to treat them like mental infants, say. the young. But the mother sententiously reiterates: “I don’t mind, as far as I am concerned. But I have to protect my children.”
Protect, that is, some artificial children that only exist in parental imagination, from a Bogey that likewise has no existence outside that imagination, and thereby derive a great sense of parental authority, importance, and justification.