A thought-provoking integration of inquiry, empathy—somatic as well as emotional—, relationship counseling, memory, story-telling, and silence

Maisie Dobbs, the title character in Jacqueline Winspear’s debut novel (2003), is a private investigator who combines inquiry with healing or making whole.  Although Maisie Dobbs is fictional, her integration of inquiry with empathy—somatic as well as emotional—, relationship counseling, and exploration of memory, story-telling, and silence is thought provoking.  The time is the late 1920s in London and south-east England.  Maisie had been a maid as a teenager before World War I until her autodidactic studies were discovered by her employer.  This led to her being mentored by a class-crossing doctor, Maurice Blanche, with her studies interrupted by working as a nurse at the frontlines in France.  In the novel, she is taking her first cases on her own.  In the passage to follow she walks and talks with a client who wanted to know why his wife disappeared twice a week.

The walk was by no means an idle suggestion. Maisie had learned from Maurice Blanche the importance of keeping the client open to whatever was being reported or suggested. “Sitting in a chair gives too much opportunity to retreat into the self,” Blanche had said.  “Keep the person moving, in the way that an artist keeps the oil moving when he is painting. Don’t give them a chance to dry up; don’t allow the client to shut you out.”

“Mr. Davenham, I have decided to give you my report and my recommendations. I say ‘recommendations’ because I believe you are a man of compassion.”

Davenham maintained an even pace. Good, thought Maisie. She matched his stride, keenly observing the position of his arms, the way he held his head forward and tilted back slightly, as if sniffing the air
for a predator. He’s terrified, thought Maisie, feeling fear rise up as she began to imitate his manner of walking and carriage. She closed her eyes for just a few seconds to be clear about the feelings now seeping through her body, and thought: He’s afraid to give, for fear of losing.

She had to be quick to banish the fear.

“Mr. Davenham, you are not being deceived. Your wife is faithful.” The tall man breathed an audible sigh of relief.

“But she does need your help.”

“In what way, Miss Dobbs?” The tension that ebbed with her revelation had no chance to reclaim him before Maisie spoke again.

“Like many young women, your wife lost someone she loved. In the war. The man was her first love, a puppy love. Had he lived, no doubt such an affection would have died with the onset of maturity. However—” .


“A friend of her brother. His name was Vincent. It’s in my report.  Mr. Davenham, may we slow down just a little, you see, my feet …”

“Of course, yes, I’m sorry.”

Christopher Davenham settled into a more relaxed gait, to match Maisie, who had reduced her stride to allow him to consider her words.

“Mr. Davenham, have you ever spoken with your wife about the war, about her brother, about her losses?”

“No, never. I mean, I know the facts. But one just has to get on with it. After all, you can’t just give in, can you?”

“And what about you, Mr. Davenham?

“I didn’t serve. I have a printing company, Miss Dobbs. I was required by the government to keep the people informed.”

“Did you want to serve?”

“Does that matter?”

“Perhaps it does, to your wife. Perhaps it matters to your wife to be able to discuss her past with you, for you to know—”

“Your report will give me the facts, Miss Dobbs.”

“Mr. Davenham, you may know the facts, but it isn’t a catalog of facts that is causing your wife’s melancholy. It is the storage of memories and of feelings. Do you understand?”

The man was silent, as was Maisie. She knew she was out of bounds. But this was not new for her. She had spent much of her life out of bounds, living and speaking where, according to some, she had
no business.

“Allow the past to have a voice,” Maisie continued. “Then it will be stilled. It’s only then that your marriage will have a future, Mr. Davenham. And Mr. Davenham…”


“Just in case you were considering such a move, your wife does not need medication, and she does not need a doctor. Your wife needs you. When she has you, Vincent will be allowed to rest in peace.”

The man took a few more steps in silence, then nodded.

“Shall we go back to the office?” Maisie asked, her head to one side.

Davenham nodded again. Maisie allowed him his thoughts, allowed him the room that he needed in which to take her words to heart. If she persisted, he might become defensive. And this was a door that needed to remain open. For there was something about the experience with Celia Davenham [the wife] that nagged at Maisie. She didn’t yet know what it was, but she was confident that it would speak to her. Maurice Blanche maintained that amid the tales, the smokescreens, and the deceptive mirrors of life’s unsolved mysteries, truth resides, waiting for someone to enter its sanctum, then leave, without quite closing the door behind them. That is when truth may make its escape. And Maisie had ensured that the door was left open when she last saw Celia.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see bit.ly/pjtaylor). He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (bit.ly/tbhblog)

2 Responses to A thought-provoking integration of inquiry, empathy—somatic as well as emotional—, relationship counseling, memory, story-telling, and silence

  1. Pingback: An example of a generative, reflective meeting « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  2. Teryl Cartwright says:

    Thanks, I will have to read the book to see what other insights and techniques are used such as reflective walking. Looks like good story too. Even if the book probably doesn’t show Davenham’s talk next since it is Maisie’s POV, hope so to see how she would balance empathy between the perspectives of the other two.

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