Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The nameless narrator encounters two former acquaintances, Gilbert Long and Grace Brissenden, both of whom are also going to the party at Newmarch, and both of whom appear considerably changed to the narrator. Long, who previously struck the narrator as a handsome clod, seems suddenly to have become clever, and Mrs. Brissenden, who is supposedly at least forty, seems to have grown younger or at least not to have aged. In conversation with Mrs. Briss, as she is called, the narrator receives the idea for what is to become his theory, that Long’s intellectual improvement is the result of his having entered into a relationship with a clever woman, identified by Mrs. Briss as Lady John, another guest at Newmarch. Lady John is coming on a later train with Guy Brissenden, her screen, as that gentleman’s wife intimates, for her affair with Long.
Arriving at the party, the narrator fails, just as he initially failed to recognize Mrs. Briss, to recognize Guy, who, although only in his late twenties, looks older now than his wife. Guy appears, in fact, “quite sixty.” This discovery completes the narrator’s theory that as one party to a relationship gains, either physically or intellectually, the other loses, is drained by the “sacrificer” until quite depleted. The narrator communicates this theory to Ford Obert, who assumes Mrs. Briss to be considerably younger than her husband.
The narrator attempts to corroborate his theory. His discovery that Lady John is as witty and superficial as ever leads him to reject her, in a conversation with Mrs. Briss, as Long’s “victim,” for the partner to such a relationship will of necessity lack her former attributes. At this juncture, the two conspirators discovers in colloquy two figures who prove to be Guy and May Server, the latter presumably using Guy as a screen, just as Lady John was formerly said to have done. Mrs. Briss happily proves to be the very woman for whom they are looking to serve as the replacement for the now unacceptable Lady John. Mrs. Server is “all over the place,” flitting from man to man in an attempt to mask the loss of her faculties, or so Mrs. Briss confides to the narrator in their next interview. Her description tallies remarkably with that given the narrator by Obert, who sees Mrs. Server greatly changed from the self-possessed woman she was when she sat for him to have her portrait painted. By this time, the narrator, on the grounds of both Mrs. Briss’s and Obert’s testimony and of an encounter with Mrs. Server herself, comes around to accepting Mrs. Briss’s account, but his tender feeling for Mrs. Server, his sense that he and his collaborator are poking into a matter that is none of their business, and perhaps also his pique that Mrs. Briss is beating him at his own game, prevents him from acknowledging to her fully the degree of conviction to which she brings him.
The amount of data with which the narrator is confronted becomes prodigious, but the theory expands to accommodate all of it: Lady John makes up to Guy to conceal the fact that she is in love with Long; Mrs. Server’s single appearance with Long (the point is actually made by Mrs. Briss) is the exception that proves the rule;...
(The entire section is 1311 words.)
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