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Doctor Fox would have got on the plane with the paper serviette still sprouting from his collar. Elizabeth whisked it out. He stood in front of her with his eyes closed like a child waiting to have its face wiped. She remembered a reference he had written for her when she went for her first job: ‘an intellect of quite a high order’. Now it seemed comical, even a compliment; but then she had wept over the reservation. She screwed up the serviette and stepped back.

First of all I want to be sure if I am right in understanding the parts in bold.

in the first bold part:

the sentence "Doctor Fox would have got on the plane with the paper serviette still sprouting from his collar" hasn't got if clause, can it be the imagination of Elizabeth and can we write it like this: If he was left to himself He would have got on the plane with the paper serviette still sprouting from his collar?

in the second bold part:

Does "reference" mean: a letter that is written by someone who knows you, to describe you and say if you are suitable for a job, course, etc.?

Does the whole second bold part mean: And when she had interview for a job Doctor Fox had written she was not proper one because she is not intelligent and she wept because she was not in a list of reservation for that job?

Does "went for her first job" mean "she went for the first job interview"?

Does "reservation" mean: the job was not kept for her?

Source: The Children's Bach by Helen Garner.

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Most of your interpretations are correct, but...

Dr. Fox had described Elizabeth as having 'an intellect of quite a high order' - that is, as being fairly intelligent. At the time she had wept from disappointment because he had not felt able to say that she was very intelligent (had an intellect of a high order). Now, she thinks it probably was meant as a compliment.

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  • Lots of thanks, so does "reservation" in the sentence "she wept over reservation" mean: The Doctor Fox' s description about her? and his description was not generously? – Viser Hashemi Apr 2 at 20:41
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    That's right. But it is not an obvious way of expressing it in English. I took a moment to understand what it meant. We say "I have some reservations" about something, to mean the same as "I have some doubts about approving or accepting it", but I would not refer to a reversation in the singular, and I would not use it to refer to a limitation in what somebody expresses. – Colin Fine Apr 2 at 21:12
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    'Quite' is a treacherous word. It can be qualified ('kind of') or not ('very'), and it is not clear from the extract what Doctor Fox meant. – Michael Harvey Apr 2 at 22:53
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    Oxford gives one definition of reservation as an expression of doubt qualifying overall approval of a plan or statement.. Instead of saying that she was very intelligent, Dr. Fox had said only that her level of intelligence was 'quite' (fairly) high. Maybe he was the kind of person who never gives enthusiastic praise. – Kate Bunting Apr 3 at 7:45
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“quite” can be tricky. In BrE (which we’d assume for an Australian author), it usually means “fairly”. So, when his letter of reference for her first job interview described her as “quite” intelligent, she assumed it was an insult (see damning with faint praise), so she wept.

However, “quite” can also mean “very” (the norm in AmE), so now she believes it was a compliment.

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  • In BrE 'quite beautiful' means 'utterly (or very) beautiful'. – Michael Harvey Apr 4 at 9:57
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the sentence "Doctor Fox would have got on the plane with the paper serviette still sprouting from his collar" hasn't got if clause, can it be the imagination of Elizabeth and can we write it like this: If he was left to himself He would have got on the plane with the paper serviette still sprouting from his collar?

This depends on whether Elizabeth is receiving Doctor Fox after he gets off the plane (the plane trip has already happened), or she is sending him off before he gets on the plane (the trip hasn't happened yet).

If the trip hasn't happened yet, then your interpretation is fine.

If the trip has already happened, then "Doctor Fox would have got on the plane with the paper serviette still sprouting from his collar" means something like "He must have done it, and it was a typical thing for him to do".

Does "reference" mean: a letter that is written by someone who knows you, to describe you and say if you are suitable for a job, course, etc.?

Yes.

Does "went for her first job" mean "she went for the first job interview"?

It looks that way to me. This is either an old or a foreign variety of English; this use is not acceptable in modern American English.

Does "reservation" mean: the job was not kept for her?

No, it doesn't mean that. This is related to the word "reserved" -- the relevant meaning is sense 1 in Merriam-Webster - "restrained in words or actions". Reservation describes a quality of the letter: its praise of her was, in her opinion, too restrained, or not enthusiastic enough.

Does the whole second bold part mean

Elizabeth is remembering this sequence of events:

  1. She applied for her first job.

  2. Doctor Fox wrote her a letter of recommendation, a "reference".

  3. She read the reference, and it described her as having "an intellect of quite a high order".

  4. She believed that this description was understated. She took this so badly that she cried.

  5. She now views the same description as comical or even complimentary.

He would have got on the plane versus He must have got on the plane

If the plane trip has already happened, Elizabeth can think to herself "He must have got on the plane with the serviette still sprouting from his collar." The use of must presents the idea as something weaker than a fact -- instead, it is a conclusion she has drawn from some evidence.

But she might also think to herself "He would have got on the plane with the serviette still sprouting from his collar." This one is a little harder to describe clearly. I will quote some relevant sections from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language:

Will vs must

in its central-epistemic use [will] can generally be replaced by must with relatively little change of meaning. Must conveys the idea of conclusion, and is often used in explanations: Ed's late - he must have overslept. With central-epistemic will it is more a matter of assumption or expectation

"Central-epistemic" means a sense of will that relates to how the speaker knows something; the examples given in the book of this use are They will have made the decision last week and (after a knock on the door) That will be the plumber. Essentially, these are predictions with a very high level of confidence.

I might rephrase this by saying that if Elizabeth thinks "He must have got on the plane with the serviette still sprouting from his collar", she probably reached that conclusion by seeing the serviette, whereas if she thinks "He would have got on the plane with the serviette still sprouting from his collar", she might still have reached that conclusion by seeing the serviette, but she might have reached it by being familiar with Doctor Fox's personality and assuming that this was the kind of absentminded thing that he would do.

There is another sense of will that might be relevant here:

(b) Propensity

[40i] He will lie in bed all day, reading trashy novels.

[40ii] Oil will float on water.

Here we are concerned with characteristic or habitual behaviour [...]

Strong stress on the auxiliary conveys the speaker's emotive response to the situation - usually exasperation, disapproval, resignation, or the like: He WILL pour the tea-leaves down the sink.

This is the sense that I had in mind when I said "He would have got on the plane with the serviette still sprouting from his collar" would mean something like "he must have done it, and it was a typical thing for him to do."

I'm sorry if this is hard to read/understand; it's a complex topic and these can be pretty subtle shades of meaning. But I think this kind of thing is interesting.

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  • Lots of thanks, about the sentence "Doctor Fox would have got on the plane with the paper serviette still sprouting from his collar" I think if the trip has already happened then it should be written like this: Doctor Fox must have got on the plane with the paper serviette still sprouting from his collar – – Viser Hashemi Apr 3 at 15:33
  • Would and must are both possibilities if the trip has already happened. They express different ideas: He must have got on the plane with the serviette sprouting from his collar expresses that Elizabeth is drawing an inference rather than stating a fact -- she doesn't know that he got on the plane that way, but she has used evidence to come to that conclusion. He would have got on the plane with the serviette still sprouting from his collar might express a very similar idea, or it might express something a little different. I'll add a discussion of this to my answer. – collapsinghrung Apr 10 at 12:46

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