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  That night, on going to bed, I forgot to prepare in imagination the Barmecide supper of hot roast potatoes, or white bread and new milk, with which I was wont to amuse my inward cravings: I feasted instead on the spectacle of ideal drawings, which I saw in the dark; all the work of my own hands: freely pencilled houses and trees, picturesque rocks and ruins, Cuyp-like groups of cattle, sweet paintings of butterflies hovering over unblown roses, of birds picking at ripe cherries, of wren's nests enclosing pearl-like eggs, wreathed about with young ivy sprays. I examined, too, in thought, the possibility of my ever being able to translate currently a certain little French story which Madame Pierrot had that day shown me; nor was that problem solved to my satisfaction ere I fell sweetly asleep. I examined, too, in thought, the possibility of my ever being able to translate currently a certain little French story which Madame Pierrot had that day shown me; nor was that problem solved to my satisfaction ere I fell sweetly asleep.
 Well has Solomon said -- “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.”
 I would not now have exchanged Lowood with all its privations for Gateshead and its daily luxuries.

-- Chapter 8, Jane Eyre

  1. Does the last sentence mean that the decision in the past has a relation with the present, that is, I haven’t changed my mind still now?

  2. Or is it just a recollection, in the present, that I came to that decision in the past?

If the first is right, the original sentence is different in the meaning from this sentence, isn’t it?

I decided then I would not exchange Lowood with all its privation for Gateshead and its luxuries.

If the second is right, there’s no difference between the original and the above sentence, isn’t it?

1 Answer 1

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SHORT VERSION:
Although this looks like an ordinary present perfect, you are dealing with a modal verb here, and the sense is that you describe in your (2).

LONG VERSION:
Here's how it works.

An ordinary present-tense indicative sentence would read

I will not exchange Lowood … for Gateshead …

If tomorrow you look back and remember what you said today, you cast this into the past:

I would not exchange Lowood … for Gateshead …

But suppose what you say (today) is something like:

Even if you paid me a million dollars I would not exchange Lowood … for Gateshead …

When you come to cast this into the past, you have a problem: it’s already using the past form to express the ‘hypothetical’ character of your assertion.

In such cases, English uses the construction past-modal + have + past-participle to express the simple past sense of the past-modal.

It’s a present perfect construction only in form; the sense is simple past.

Accordingly it means exactly what you say: a recollection, in the present, of what you decided in the past.

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  • I’ve printed your comments and pasted them into my grammar book. I have five of them and two syntax books, yet there’s none describing so delicately and pointedly about my questions. I wonder whether it’s from your artistic delicacy or your academic background or both. Especially your recent three replies I sincerely appreciate. Thank you very much.
    – Listenever
    Mar 4, 2013 at 0:43
  • @Listenever You are very gracious. But the gratitude is on my side: your questions make me think hard about my language, my Great Mother, whom I have taken for granted too long. Mar 4, 2013 at 0:54
  • @StoneyB- The way I read that sentence it means, If I had it to do over today, I wouldn't make that exchange like I did before.
    – Jim
    Mar 4, 2013 at 3:23
  • @Listenever,StoneyB: We're not helped when talking about "tense" here by the fact that the citation (which is entirely in "the past") happens to include the word "now" in a context where really it means "then". Mar 5, 2013 at 3:10
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers No, no; I'm saying either of those could be true, as you infer, or neither. Mar 5, 2013 at 4:13

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