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In a story titled "Prelude" written by "Katherine Mansfield" I came across the following sentence in this paragraph:

The fireplace was choked up with rubbish. She poked among it but found nothing except a hair-tidy with a heart painted on it that had belonged to the servant girl. Even that she left lying, and she trailed through the narrow passage into the drawing-room.

After a little bit of investigation, I realized that "Even that she left lying" means "She left even that lying", with "that" referring to the "hair-tidy", meaning:

She left everything lying in the fireplace, even the hair-tidy.

The meaning of this sentence was very unclear to me at first . So my question is why the object of the verb has been moved to the beginning of sentence? What's been the purpose? to emphasize? to make the sentence more beautiful? Is this sort of stuff only found in literature? Or is it something that I may face in daily conversations as well?

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My initial thought was, "It does sound like elegant prose," but even that could be a false assumption – perhaps the structure is used in everyday speech as well. – J.R. Nov 24 '12 at 9:33
If you speak this sentence, then you must put primary stress on the word "that": "Even that she left lying". This implies that it was very strange that she'd left it in the fireplace. What's happening in the story? Are they moving house? – user21497 Nov 24 '12 at 9:43
@BillFranke They have moved. And the girl is wandering around their empty ex-house. – Meysam Nov 24 '12 at 9:46
That's what I suspected. Perhaps there wasn't any more room on the dray, not even for the servant girl's hair-tidy. Or perhaps she didn't want any more mementos of the house. I'd have to read more of the story than I have to figure that out. I don't know why KM fronts the "that". That, however, seems to be one characteristic of her writing style, as does ambiguity: "As she looked a little Chinese Lottie came out on to the lawn" = "As she looked, a little Chinese Lottie came out on to the lawn" or "As she looked a little Chinese, Lottie came out on to the lawn"? – user21497 Nov 24 '12 at 9:54
@Kristina Lopez: My son looks "a little Chinese" and "a little European". When he was with his mother, everyone in Taiwan thought he was Taiwanese, but when he was with me, everyone thought he was a Westerner. Besides, the word "as" is ambiguous in this sentence: If you read it as "because", then it makes more sense that Lottie came out on to the lawn to show herself off in a Chinese princess costume. I'm still not sure why KM included that word "Chinese" in the sentence (I didn't finish the story). Was Lottie Chinese? That's certainly not a Chinese name. – user21497 Nov 24 '12 at 13:45
up vote 7 down vote accepted

It’s an instance of fronting, in which the writer moves a clause element from its usual position. Here, the object is moved from the normal position after the verb to a position in front of it. The effect is to emphasise ‘even that’, by placing it first, as well as ‘left lying’ by leaving it last. The unmarked version, ‘She left even that lying’, would instead emphasise ‘she’, which for literary reasons the writer clearly did not wish to do.

Fronting is generally a feature of formal prose, but the fronting of objects is not unusual in conversation in sentences such as ‘That I couldn’t tell you.’

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Yes, fronting gives a nice emphasis. I've seen words like even (, just, only, merely, nearly) referred to as limiting modifiers - the adverb catch-all seems totally inadequate. However, since they have the ability to modify various classes of words, and even, on occasion, prepositional phrases, perhaps they warrant a new small receptacle with a 'multi-purpose modifiers' label. They are notoriously misplaceable, but 'even that' or 'even the hair-tidy' give clarity here. The original conveys the tone best, but the association with 'Even though ...' needs suppressing by the reader. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 24 '12 at 12:39
Thank you. Any more examples like ‘That I couldn’t tell you.’? – Meysam Nov 24 '12 at 19:35
The second half is typically I couldn’t tell you. A variant might be Whether that's true or not, I couldn't tell you. – Barrie England Nov 24 '12 at 19:50

When "that" is fronted as described, the intended meaning is not

She left everything lying in the fireplace, even the hair-tidy.


She did not remove anything, even the hair-tidy, from the fireplace.

The emphasis is upon the fact that even something so small and personal was not sufficient to overcome a general disposition to leave things behind.

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