The snow, the frustrations of being with the family, the frustrations of coming back to work – these let us put aside. A little banter, the possibility of romance, summer sunshine – how does that sound? Why not begin the New Year with a beguiling conversation between two highly eligible (although for different reasons) individuals. And yet there is a link, far from tenuous, between this text and those seasonal arguments which ensue when several generations with differing interests are cooped up for Christmas. The same link connects this extract to business meetings which drift or end without agreement: the difference between what is said and what is thought.
The extract is from Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. Improbable as it may sound, as I read this consummately crafted nineteenth-century dialogue, my thoughts were of the left-hand column exercise beloved of organisational learning practitioners. You may well be familiar with this tool which is used to help people examine their underlying thoughts, feelings, assumptions and mental models. The idea is to discover ways of holding conversations that lead to greater understanding of both process and content. In the left-hand column exercise, people select a difficult situation and reconstruct a pivotal conversation. In the right-hand column, they write down what was said. In the left, they articulate what they were thinking and feeling, but not saying.
In this extract, George Eliot brings together Gwendolen Harleth and Mr Grandcourt. At this point in the novel, the author has spent ninety pages introducing Gwendolen, her beautiful heroine. Gwendolen is accomplished, fearless and, alas, selfish. She has clear ideas about what is of paramount importance: her own wishes and situation. Despite her widowed mother’s relatively modest lot, Gwendolen is determined to be something. Unusually, she does not accept that this will necessarily be achieved through marriage, as everyone else expects. The neighbourhood is abuzz with speculation when Mr Grandcourt, heir to a considerable fortune, arrives nearby. Gwendolen, well aware what people are saying, takes part in an archery tournament, where her skill and beauty attract much attention. Grandcourt arranges an introduction. The following conversation is the result. They have just met. We know nothing of him other than he is wealthy and a member of the highest society. What is your first impression? His pauses allow us access to Gwendolen’s inner monologue, but his thoughts remain closed to us. Will they marry? Should they? What do you think?
Lord Brackenshaw was gone, and what is called conversation had begun, the first and constant element in it being that Grandcourt looked at Gwendolen persistently with a slightly exploring
gaze, but without change of expression, while she only occasionally looked at him with a flash of observation a little softened by coquetry. Also, after her answers there was a longer or shorter pause before he spoke again.
“I used to think archery was a great bore,” Grandcourt began. He spoke with a fine accent, but with a certain broken drawl, as of a distinguished personage with a distinguished cold on his chest.
“Are you converted to-day?” said Gwendolen.
(Pause, during which she imagined various degrees and modes of opinion about herself that might be entertained by Grandcourt.)
“Yes, since I saw you shooting. In things of this sort one generally sees people missing and simpering.”
“I suppose you are a first-rate shot with a rifle.”
(Pause, during which Gwendolen, having taken a rapid observation of Grandcourt, made a brief graphic description of him to an indefinite hearer.)
“I have left off shooting.”
“Oh then you are a formidable person. People who have done things once and left them off make one feel very contemptible, as if one were using cast-off fashions. I hope you have not left off all follies, because I practise a great many.”
(Pause, during which Gwendolen made several interpretations of her own speech.)
“What do you call follies?”
“Well, in general I think, whatever is agreeable is called a folly. But you have not left off hunting, I hear.”
(Pause, wherein Gwendolen recalled what she had heard about Grandcourt’s position, and decided that he was the most aristocratic-looking man she had ever seen.)
“One must do something.”
“And do you care about the turf?–or is that among the things you have left off?”
(Pause, during which Gwendolen thought that a man of extremely calm, cold manners might be less disagreeable as a husband than other men, and not likely to interfere with his wife’s preferences.)
“I run a horse now and then; but I don’t go in for the thing as some men do. Are you fond of horses?”
“Yes, indeed: I never like my life so well as when I am on horseback, having a great gallop. I think of nothing. I only feel myself strong and happy.”
(Pause, wherein Gwendolen wondered whether Grandcourt would like what she said, but assured herself that she was not going to disguise her tastes.)
“Do you like danger?”
“I don’t know. When I am on horseback I never think of danger. It seems to me that if I broke my bones I should not feel it. I should go at anything that came in my way.”
(Pause during which Gwendolen had run through a whole hunting season with two chosen hunters to ride at will.)
“You would perhaps like tiger-hunting or pig-sticking. I saw some of that for a season or two in the East. Everything here is poor stuff after that.”
“You are fond of danger, then?”
(Pause, wherein Gwendolen speculated on the probability that the men of coldest manners were the most adventurous, and felt the strength of her own insight, supposing the question had to be decided.)
“One must have something or other. But one gets used to it.”
“I begin to think I am very fortunate, because everything is new to me: it is only that I can’t get enough of it. I am not used to anything except being dull, which I should like to leave off as you have left off shooting.”
(Pause, during which it occurred to Gwendolen that a man of cold and distinguished manners might possibly be a dull companion; but on the other hand she thought that most persons were dull, that she had not observed husbands to be companions–and that after all she was not going to accept
Does he propose? And does she refuse? Does she have the option? What other paths were open to women in the nineteenth century? It would be great if you would share your thoughts by posting a comment. I’d love to know what you think about this text. I’d be happy, too, to have your suggestions for texts or poems you would like to read on Books at Bibby Line Group.