To understand the moon and six pence
January 9, 2021 5:56 AM   Subscribe

There are two questions from the book" The moon and sixpence". About chapter 6.One morning Mrs Strickland sent me round a note to say that she was giving a dinner-party that evening, and one of her guests had failed her. She asked me to stop the gap. She wrote. It's only decent to warn you that you will be bored to extinction. It was a thoroughly dull party from the beginning, but if you will come I shall be uncommonly grateful... My question is why she used "was" although the party doesn't open yet? Is it a kind of subjunctive way? And the second question is from the chapter 8. the Colonel said "I'm just coming. If you're walking up Victoria Street, I'll come along with you." "All right", I said. "Come on." The author is very young and the Colonel is his superior. Are "All right." and "Come on." not rude expression to the Colonel here ?Thank you for helping my reading English.
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (14 answers total)
Best answer: The first question: when she says “it was a dull party from the beginning” I think she may be using the word “party” in the sense of “a group of people” rather than referring to the event. It’s not a very common modern usage, except in restaurants.

Second question: I can’t say for sure, but I suspect those terms did not seem as casual 100 years ago as they do now.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:04 AM on January 9, 2021 [11 favorites]

For the first question, I think showbiz_liz is right, but I also read it as "it was [going to be] a thoroughly dull party from [the time it was planned]." As in, she expects that it's going to be boring but she's asking the narrator to do her a favor.
posted by basalganglia at 6:22 AM on January 9, 2021 [5 favorites]

I agree about the first question. In this case the "party" that was dull from the beginning refers to the group of people that Mrs Strickland has invited to dinner. She is saying that it always has been a boring set of people, who make up a boring party.

As for the second, I haven't read the book, but have been reading the chapter in question just now. This is in a social setting where the Colonel and Mrs Strickland have both been talking freely with the narrator about Mrs Strickland's marriage troubles. It's not a formal situation and the Colonel isn't the narrator's military superior. I would say that yes, the narrator is being rather informal and casual here, but not rude. I believe this line is supposed to show that he is giving in and going along for the ride with how the two older people have been acting.

There is a subtlety here that I am having trouble articulating for you, and even for myself. On the one hand these older characters expect the narrator to act roughly like their social equal. He's younger but they are integrating them into their "set," their social group. Or they are attempting to. He is supposed to chat with them and come around to their flats and listen sympathetically to their personal problems. They even refer to one another by their first names to him. If he acted too deferential or distant that would upset the dynamic the older two themselves have established. But at the same time you are right that he should not be too intimate with them (and he does not want that either). It would certainly be very odd for him to call them by their first names.
posted by redfoxtail at 6:26 AM on January 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

Agreed that the first one interprets as "it was a dull group from when I made up the guest list."

Not sure, but my guess is that "come on" as casual is a newer usage, and an older (and maybe more British?) one would be more like "carry on," only you're coming instead of going. So "carry on" where you were headed, but "come on" with me.

As for "all right," I don't think of it as particularly casual as a form of agreement. Maybe not completely formal, but not rudely casual, but I'm not sure.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:26 AM on January 9, 2021

Reading onward a bit, it seems that this dynamic is part of the ongoing characterization of the narrator. When he goes to talk to Strickland, all of the ways he imagines that the scene will out are stiff and formal. He is carefully polite at first, though he also modulates his tone, trying to hit the right note ("tried my best to assume an airy manner"). Still, he speaks formally: "I had the pleasure of dining with you last July." And then, immediately, Strickland is much more casual than the narrator, and treats him more like an intimate. "I'm delighted to see you. Take a pew."
posted by redfoxtail at 6:38 AM on January 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

I don't think it requires using the sense of party as a group of people, the elided "was (going to be)" works and this type of verbal tense elision seems common (to my modern native ears) when reading older British stuff. It feels sort of clever and coy.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:13 AM on January 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

We're maybe reading "c'mon," when the "come on" actually demonstrates respect by adopting the elder's diction, and also works to deepen the connection by that sharing. And I wonder whether "all right" might have been used earlier as a more enthusiastic endorsement, rather than to indicate mere acquiescence.
posted by bullatony at 7:59 AM on January 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

FWIW I agree with you that "come on" does read as .... sassy. The sort of liberty that a brash young man might take with an older gentleman who might be inclined to humor him, perhaps?
posted by MiraK at 10:04 AM on January 9, 2021

The Moon and Sixpence was published in 1919, when the older sense of "party" to mean "a group of people assembled for a social activity" was still active. (You can find it in Jane Austen.) It might be helpful to note that this is no longer an active usage, at least in American English, except by some restaurants ("is your party all here?").
posted by praemunire at 10:09 AM on January 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's necessary to consider the two meanings of "party" (a group of people, a social event). But I am not a scholar, just a reader.

I think you just have to fill in some implied words.

"It's only decent to warn you that you will be bored to extinction. It was [already guaranteed to be] a thoroughly dull party from the beginning [of the planning process], but if you will come I shall be uncommonly grateful."

Isn't English horrible? I can't imagine how annoying it would be to have to learn all the unspoken and contradictory rules. You are a patient person!
posted by cranberrymonger at 10:41 AM on January 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Gideonfrog, 'carry on' is closer to 'continue on' (with what you were doing, or on your way), as opposed to 'come on' (with me).
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 5:14 PM on January 9, 2021

I think you just have to fill in some implied words.

"It's only decent to warn you that you will be bored to extinction. It was [already guaranteed to be] a thoroughly dull party from the beginning [of the planning process], but if you will come I shall be uncommonly grateful."

I think this is a definite possibility, even though I suggested something else.

mizukko, I hope the fact that a bunch of native English speakers can't answer your question for certain will make you feel better about your confusion!
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:40 PM on January 9, 2021

I'm pretty confident that "It was a thoroughly dull party from the beginning" is equivalent to "It was a thoroughly dull group when I first put it together" and would certainly read it as such.

The second passage in question doesn't seem absurdly informal in context. The narrator has been treated as an equal by the Colonel and Mrs Strickland previously, and has indicated that they were glad to get away. Except now the narrator is not getting away, he's got to walk with the Colonel at least for politeness sake.

Both examples together feel very much of the "immediately post-WW1 period" to me.
posted by plonkee at 4:21 AM on January 10, 2021

Chiming in with my agreement with plonkee, saltysalticid, and redfoxtail. Not only is it a period piece in its slang but also specific in its culture (British).

Don't worry, from another non-western english speaker - reading stuff from that time period is always a challenge because it's already very much modern english but so much of the slang and mannerisms are no longer in use, i tend to need a reread as well.
posted by cendawanita at 10:49 AM on January 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

« Older You are hourly...exempt!?   |   More campy witchy movies Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.