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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Eve’s Progeny, The Devil’s Handmaiden, And Men’s Folly–The Story Of Matty Lord

New Brighton was never big enough for Matty Lord.  No small town would have been able to contain the likes of her – a true original, ambitious, libertine, far too exotic for New England, never just dismissive but anxious to reorder the chessboard and finally and inevitably change the rules of the game.

The Lords were of the oldest American stock – The Mayflower, colonial era whaling and trading, industrialists during and after the Civil War, suppliers to the Union with hardware, munitions, and rolling stock; captains of the industries they created in the early Twentieth Century, colleagues of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Crane; financiers of Wall Street and custodians of America’s vast pre-Crash wealth; managers and overseers of the post-WWII economy; and finally as the boom slowed, retired on vast inherited wealth in New Brighton, Nantucket, Gstaad, and St. Tropez.

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Matty Lord was a child of privilege – the best country day schools and private preparatory schools in New England, cotillions, Mistletoe Balls, sports cars, and polo.  She was being groomed to marry into any one of New England’s best families, to continue the lineage of the Lords, Lodges, Hookers, and Mathers which dated from 1145 – castles and manors on both sides of the family, courtiers to English kings, counsellors, emissaries, and pursers to royalty. 

As a child Matty took all this for granted, and how could she not?  New Brighton’s West End was an aristocratic conservatory – old, Victorian, isolated and unaffected by anything beyond its perimeter. Its money, influence, status, and power assured its longevity. The community would last 1000 years because it had already lasted 1000.  The English aristocracy whether in England or transplanted to the United States had permanence – not simply because of its longevity but because of its rightness.  The descendants of kings had always been custodians of the same moral rectitude, noblesse oblige, and commitment to honor, justice, courage, and discipline.  Regardless of their place in the family tree, the changing times and culture, and the uncertainty of world events, they would always be as strong, as determined, and as conservative as their ancestors.  Theirs was a philosophical, moral, and ethical custodianship – they were the foundation on which more secular, practical, and necessary institutions would be built.  They were America.

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Something changed in her early teenage years.  Despite her training, upbringing, and education, she had become a difficult, willful child – common in many if not most families in middle class America but unheard of in the West End.  While other communities may have had the same concern for integrity, social unity, and tradition, such concern was of a lesser order.  It came not from history and patrimony, but from the Jeffersonian equation of individualism within a cooperative community.  The new Republic could only survive and prosper within a utopian communitarianism. Family, church, and clan would always be essential structural elements of the New World just as they had been for millennia.  Hamilton understood that the sophistication of the Enlightenment and the philosophical principles on which it was founded were for the few to curate and manage.

It was one thing for a child in a modest suburb to challenge the status quo and to reject traditional values but another for the likes of Matty Lord.  Her disobedience would be no less than dereliction of duty, fidelity, and honor. But disobey she did.  What irked everyone was less her petulance – some irritability was expected in girls her age regardless of breeding -  but her absolute indifference, an attitude that was far more mature than it should be; so adult in its cynicism, so evolved in its complete disrespect of all things.  It was her ability to hurt that was most remarkable.  She seemed to understand instinctively where the social fontanelle was and how to reach the unprotected, defenseless brain beneath.

Nothing in her infancy or early childhood offered any clues for her attitude. There was nothing out of order in her parents’ rearing.  They provided the same balance of discipline and reward as their parents, grandparents, and ancestors had.  Child upbringing was more than an individual responsibility; it was a social one.  They were responsible for the same outcomes as their forbears; and nothing in Matty’s life was left to chance; yet her deviation must have come from a random re-assortment of genes beyond their control.  No one in the family had shown anything but deference and respect for the past and a willing assumption of the privileged path they were to follow.

Matty was expelled from Brookshire Country Day School, and only thanks to the long history of Lord women at Abbot Academy did this gateway to the Seven Sisters demur and admit her.  She was expelled from Abbot after her first year.  Insubordination, the principal called it, referring to the same perverse adult maturity that had intimidated every teacher in New Brighton.  She was not a bad girl, the principal said, only a high-spirited one, very intelligent but whose intelligence needed a more positive outlet; but the principal was at a loss to explain to her parents how Matty was not simply anti-social but slanderous.  Her gossip was mean and hurtful.  Her lies disassembling.  Her ability to wound, damage, and permanently undo fragile self-confidence was almost devilish.

Now of course Matty had nothing of the Devil about her, but was a clone of Dostoevsky’s Devil.  If life were all good, he says to Ivan, it would be boring.  He was ordained not to provide challenge and give the faithful a chance to prove their worthiness to God, but just the opposite – to challenge the oppressive, nonsensical piety of Jesus Christ himself.  He, the Devil, was the most important angel in the firmament, fallen or not.  He was a vaudevillian, a huckster, a snake oil salesman, and a great entertainer.

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The only remarkable thing about Matty Lord was that she had not learned this lesson but had been born knowing it.  Her eyes did not see the beauty of order, predictability, and right behavior; but the ridiculousness of it; and there was no community more expressive of this folly that the West End of New Brighton, Connecticut.  There were thousands of insular communities in America who considered themselves privileged and unique; and thousands more who abused whatever legitimate authority they had.  The West End alone, because of its profound feeling of historical determinism and belief in absolute moral and social values, was the Devil’s victim, there for the taking, oblivious to his – and more to the point, Matty Lord’s –temptations.

In another ironic and literary twist Matty Lord was the reincarnation of Milton’s Eve – the Devil’s handmaiden, his first prey and mother to generations of women who would always be the more powerful sex, the undoing of men at will, the power behind the throne and the final arbiter of all things moral and immoral because of their sexual allure and their motherhood. No man alive has ever been completely sure of the paternity of his children; and no man has been able to resist the sweet charm of feminine beauty.  Shakespeare understood this better than anyone.  The women in his Comedies ran rings around their helpless and hopeless suitors.  Those in his tragedies were amoral, determined, and disciplined who used their innate authority to achieve their ends.  Women were Shakespeare’s real villains – Lady Macbeth, Dionyza, Goneril, Regan, and Tamora – but evil they were not; only aware of an inalterable, intractable, and inherited femaleness.

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Shakespeare and Ibsen did not believe in the existence of evil; and in an inversion of Augustine’s assertion that there could be no evil in a world created by a just and compassionate God, felt that there was no such thing as good, only the perpetual exchanges between men and women.

So Matty Lord was not the spawn of the Devil, only the descendant of Eve.  The Bible suggests that because of Eve’s treason, women would eternally suffer the pain of childbirth and be consigned to a life of subservience; but the prophesy never held.  Women may have been allotted undue physical pain and suffering, but they got control of men in return.  Of course given biological and physiological determinants men have the appearance of control and power and for millennia ruled the roost; but it was only a matter of time before circumstances rebalanced the sexual equation.  Women were to redress men’s folly.

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Matty Lord saw her chance in New Brighton.  She like Iago and Edmund saw no personal benefit from disassembling the received order; no sense of retribution or revenge.  No feminist final victory.  Only mischief played with feminine wiles with no harm done to a community built on such improbable notions of propriety, rightness, and ancestry – only a few men left on the curb without knowing what hit them; a comic replay of the Garden of Eden staged, directed, and produced by none other than one of their own.

One by one the men fell – Charles Porter, descendant of the 3rd Earl of Leicester, captain of industry, respected leader of his community, golfer, skier, generous philanthropist, noblesse oblige in spades, but morally weak, easily tempted and swayed, easily deceived, and even more easily dethroned.

Next came Robert Farnsworth Mitchell, great-great grandson of a lesser but notable earl, captain of a lesser but still well-known industry, and leader – or rather subaltern – of the West End community.  Then Pritchett Bailey, descendant of aristocratic warriors, heroes of Waterloo, St. Petersburg, and the Battle of Britain, military advisors to Presidents, and  moral icons.  All were easy pickin’s for Matty Lord as weak as Othello was to Desdemona’s charm and canny femininity; as weak as Marc Antony seduced and kept by Cleopatra; as entranced, beguiled, and tethered as millions of less famous men, fictional or real.  They all believed in what they had built, what they had done, and by extension who they were; and looked no further.  They all fell, easy prey to the canny, devilish prankster, Matty Lord.

No serious damage was done.  The men were simply spat out by the organism, forgotten, airbrushed and erased from New Brighton’s social history; but Matty had had her fun, the community was less self-assured if only slightly, and the Devil most certainly had his due.

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