This is a book about talking: what people say to each other—and about each other—in meaningful or heartfelt conversation, and in what way their emotional outpourings are shaped by the chosen audience who hears them. And it is a book about fictional conversation: nearly all of the dialogues examined in it are made up by novelists and dramatists, who set their characters speaking to one another, that we might overhear them and participate in the discovery of the truth. The role of the listener is crucial.

Literature offers us endless variations on this theme, such as the confidants in Shakespeare’s plays who are patiently listening to a lover’s complaints, or hearing astounding deathbed confessions. The sharing of secrets is compelling, in itself, and village gossip, in novels such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, possesses a force all its own. Spies and detectives—in the novels of John Le Carré and Raymond Chandler—are constantly wary of betrayal. In a conspiracy, such as Orczy’s famous ‘League of the Scarlet Pimpernel,’ total loyalty is demanded of its members, or all is lost. Jane Austen takes up the subject of giving advice, in Emma and Persuasion, and P.G. Wodehouse’s inspired creation of Jeeves shows that sometimes a miraculous resolution can come to us from the outside—although the keenest necessity is to understand a truth or a new perspective for ourselves. Other varieties of confidants—professional consultants, servants within a household, helpful family members, and close friends are also considered as they are portrayed in the works of Edmond Rostand, Charles Dickens, Georgette Heyer, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charlotte Brontë, Stella Gibbons, Barbara Pym, G.B. Shaw, Kenneth Grahame, William Congreve, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Alexandre Dumas.

Best of all—in fact, the ideal—is the chosen companion: Horatio and Hamlet, Portia and Nerissa. From a beloved friend, we can sometimes bear to hear a needed correction, or a pleasant truth. The measure of a staunch comrade is the extent to which we confide in him or her, and reveal our innermost thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, and plans. At the heart of such an exchange lies the deepest measure of trust: ‘I will tell you what I feel … do not judge me.’


ISBN: 978-9081770088

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Talking: be careful what you say, and to whom. But always listen well.

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