Friday, May 16, 2008

A Turn of Phrase from almost 150 Years Ago

The sentence is from George Eliot's novel, The Mill on the Floss (which had preoccupied me when I was thinking of questions with which to test Powerset), published in 1860. The speaker is Mr. Deane, uncle of the two protagonists of this novel, a junior partner at Guest & Co., a successful business in the exchange of commodities. I have already established the geographical scene through my questions about the river Floss and the town of St. Ogg's. What makes this particular text interesting is its temporal scene, which is the early rise of the industrial revolution:

It’s this steam, you see, that has made the difference; it drives on every wheel double pace, and the wheel of fortune along with 'em, as our Mr. Stephen Guest said at the anniversary dinner (he hits these things off wonderfully, consider he’s seen nothing of business).

It was that parallel between the metaphorical wheel of fortune and all the physical wheels speeded up by steam power that struck me, the idea that an increase in the pace of production also increases the rate at which "fortune" leads some to success and others to failure. The "Mr. Stephen Guest" cited by Deane is the son of the senior partner at Guest & Co., introduced to us by Eliot as one "whose diamond ring, attar of roses, and air of nonchalant leisure at twelve o'clock in the day are the graceful and odoriferous result of the largest oil-mill and the most extensive wharf in St. Ogg's." In other words, unlike other characters in this novel, he is one who does not need to worry about the pace of fortune, since fortune took care of him through the circumstances of his birth. Those circumstances allow him to have opinions to which others are obliged to attend (if not to heed). Today the finances endowed upon him at birth would probably be invested in an education from which he would emerge as an academic or a consultant ("inclusive or" again). The value of his opinions would most likely be determined by today's even faster pace of the wheel of fortune!

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