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Effect, Gallantry, and Odds

“The total effect was that of gallantry in the face of odds.”The Beginning of Spring, Penelope Fitzgerald

I love this sentence for its Johnsonian concision, the way it hits three words hard—effect, gallantry, and odds—and makes you back up and think about each of them. The sentence comes immediately after a description of the outfit of a dismissed governess as she sits in the English Chaplaincy in Moscow. She’s having evening tea with the chaplain’s wife, Mrs. Graham, an influential woman, but it isn’t clear whether Mrs. Graham will help her or not. The dismissed governess is “wearing a grey skirt of stout material, a grey blouse that did not quite match it, a grey spencer with pink bits about it somewhere and a felt hat, put on quite straight.”

The total effect was that of gallantry in the face of odds.

Before this sentence, the governess seems silly, hopeless. But afterward, you see her sitting a bit straighter, lifting her chin slightly, willfully ignoring all her shades of grey. The sentence is funny and poignant in nearly perfect counter-balance, which is exactly where Fitzgerald worked best. The intricacies of compromise and accommodation were two of her great themes. No one describes better the way it feels to hold up under a hardship or disappointment you feel you didn’t quite deserve, but nevertheless can’t do anything about.

The governess is only an incidental character in the scene. The main conversation occurs between Mrs. Graham and the book’s protagonist, Frank Reid, whose wife has just left him and their three children. He has come to the chaplain’s wife (“a scholar’s daughter, brought up in Cambridge, and not reconciled to living in Moscow”) for help, too, so this wonderful sentence really includes them all.

Jessica Francis Kane is the author of a story collection, Bending Heaven, and a novel, The Report, which was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and the Indie Booksellers’ Choice Award. Her writing has appeared in many publications, including VQR, McSweeney’s, Granta Online, and The Morning News, where she is a contributing writer. A new story collection, This Close, will be published by Graywolf Press in March 2013. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children.

*Tin House is now accepting submissions for Art of the Sentence. Please send to theopenbar@tinhouse.com with Art of the Sentence as your subject line.

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