Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093
For the sophisticated conversationalists of Mrs. Brookenham’s social set, innuendo and the hinted nuance are a way of life. Indeed, their lives reside largely in talk. After Mr. Longdon spends his first evening at Mrs. Brookenham’s, he has a long conversation with Gustavus Vanderbank, a remarkably handsome and imposing member of the set. Van is taken with the older man, whose manner contrasts charmingly with that of the set, and Mr. Longdon, despite misgivings about that set, is similarly pleased. Mr. Longdon confides to Van that he was a suitor to both Van’s mother and Mrs. Brook’s mother, Lady Julia, and that he never forgot his feelings for the latter, who is dramatically different from her daughter. Upon seeing a picture of Nanda, Mr. Longdon exclaims on her similarity to Lady Julia. The conversation ends with Mr. Longdon’s revealing that the conversational tone of Mrs. Brook’s evening indeed shocks him.
When she catches her son Harold in the act of stealing a five-pound note, Mrs. Brook has a colloquy with him. She is in her family mode, a studied and languorous melancholy quite at odds with her public manner, and her conversation turns on the problem of getting Harold invited to house parties and the family’s financial straits. Harold leaves when the duchess enters, and the talk turns to Nanda, who is visiting her married friend Tishy Grendon. The duchess chides Mrs. Brook for allowing her daughter to mingle with such questionable associates; in the European manner, she is carefully sheltering her niece, Little Aggie, from any possible contaminations and preserving her as a perfect little tabula rasa until the time of her marriage. She urges Mrs. Brook to snare Mitchy as a husband for Nanda, adding that his ugliness and his being the son of a shoemaker render him an impossible mate for Aggie. After a brief conversation between Mrs. Brook and her husband, Mitchy and Petherton enter the room. Despite his outrageous talk, Mrs. Brook attributes to Mitchy a gentleness and “niceness” lacking in the others. The duchess reenters the room, this time with Aggie, followed by Carrie Donner and Lady Fanny, and the talk turns to the erotic entanglements of the Grendon-Donner-Cashmore set. The duchess informs Mitchy that Nanda is her mother’s source on the degree of intimacy between Mrs. Donner and Mr. Cashmore.
When they meet, Nanda and Mr. Longdon sense an immediate rapport. Mrs. Brook sounds Van on the subject of Mr. Longdon’s fortune and what he might do for Nanda, and at the same time she indicates that she might possibly be in love with Van. At a weekend party given by Mitchy, Mr. Longdon urges Nanda to marry, but she confides to him that she will probably never marry. The duchess tries to persuade Mr. Longdon to settle a sum on Van that will allow him to marry Nanda, which will leave Mitchy free for Aggie, who is in love with him. Mr. Longdon makes his offer to the uncertain Van, who requests time to consider the proposition and refuses to allow his prospective benefactor to name a sum.
When Van reveals Mr. Longdon’s generous offer to Mrs. Brook, that lady enigmatically hints that he will refuse it. Against Van’s wishes, Mrs. Brook tells Mitchy what she just learned and suggests that Van will pass up the chance to propose to Nanda rather than appear to have accepted a bribe. She justifies passing on the information as being in accordance with that principle of openness and honesty that marks their society. When Nanda enters shortly after the departure of her mother’s guests, Mrs. Brook questions her about her relationship with Mr. Longdon and mentions the possibility and advisability of his adopting her.
Later, at Mr. Longdon’s house, Nanda tells Mitchy, who she knows is in love with her, to marry Aggie. To please Nanda and to continue to enjoy at least the intimacy of sharing this plan with her, Mitchy acquiesces. He tells Van of his intentions, indicating that he will no longer be a rival for Nanda. Van remains uncommitted and indecisive, however.
Several months later, everyone is gathered at Tishy’s estate. Nanda is Mr. Longdon’s guest for several months; Harold ably distracts Lady Fanny from her design to run off with another gentleman; and Little Aggie, having married and lost her innocence, takes up with her aunt’s lover, Petherton. In a tremendous scene in which she demands Nanda’s return from Mr. Longdon, Mrs. Brook brings about public exposure of the group. She climaxes her performance with the revelation that Nanda read a scabrous French novel, lent to her by Vanderbank, which is pronounced unfit even for the presumably far more experienced Tishy. As a result, Vanderbank learns the depths of knowledge already open to Nanda, depths in the unveiling of which was instrumental but which, with cruel irony, now make her an impossible choice to be his wife.
The scene at Tishy’s estate destroys the solidarity of the group. It is months before Van returns to Mrs. Brook’s house, and though he supposedly comes to see Nanda, he ultimately avoids the chance to do so. Mrs. Brook interprets this to mean that he finally gives Nanda up, and she enjoins Mitchy to tell Mr. Longdon. As she explains to her remarkably obtuse husband, her purpose in creating the scene at Tishy’s was simply to confirm Mr. Longdon’s belief that she and her world are impossible for Nanda and to ensure his taking care of the girl.
Two weeks later, the overwrought and embarrassed Van makes what is presumably his final visit to Nanda. Nanda, however, lets the now awkward young man off easily by herself assuming the false position, and she generously entreats him not to desert her mother, a plea she also makes to Mitchy. Once only Mr. Longdon remains, she breaks down in the fullness of her suffering. They agree that Vanderbank ought to have married Aggie. Only her kind of innocence could have met his measure, an innocence capable of becoming its own obverse at the first taste of experience. Even under such a circumstance, however, Mitchy would still have been totally out of the question for her; it is his fate, as it is Nanda’s, to love only the person who is out of the question. Nanda’s thoughts revolve around the suffering Mitchy as she makes preparations for being taken away the following day by Mr. Longdon.