Novelette by Henry James, published in 1901.
The narrator, whose temperament and interests resemble those of the author, is a guest at an English weekend party, where his excessively refined curiosity becomes absorbed in studying Guy and Grace Brissenden, the husband not yet 30, and the wife in her middle forties, who after a few years of marriage seem to have exchanged physical and mental ages. He derives from their case a “law” that, in such uneven matches, the older partner always draws energy, youth, and wit from the “sacred fount” of the other's personality, which becomes correspondingly depleted. Then he attempts to apply his law to another guest. Gilbert Long, who seems to have exchanged his character of a stupid though handsome young man for that of a witty and understanding man of the world. The narrator's prying mind seeks to discover the mistress who must have given Long this new power. Rejecting the bright, superficial Lady John, he settles on Mrs. May Server, an attractive woman who is obviously attempting to conceal a profound emotional disturbance and weakness. He even believes that he observes a realignment of the couples, resulting from the mutual weakness and defeat of Brissenden and Mrs. Server, and the common vigor and strength of will of Long and “poor Briss's” wife. His whole structure of hypothesis is overthrown, however, when Mrs. Brissenden says he is “crazy” and repudiates his hinted accusations as “houses of cards,” though it is never certain whether his rout is caused by lies on her part or by his own unduly fanciful conjectures.
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Henry James (1843—1916) writer