Chapter 3 of Muriel Spark’s witty novel The Abbess of Crewe (1974) begins with a lingering description of an object that proves centrally significant to the story unfolding in loose parallel to Watergate, the events of which Spark satirises.
One word in one line in particular interests me, and is underlined, but the whole paragraph is a pleasure to read:
Felicity’s work-box is known as Felicity’s only because she brought it to the convent as part of her dowry. It is no mean box, being set on fine tapered legs with castors, standing two and a half feet high. The box is inlaid with mother-of-pearl and inside it has three tiers neatly set out with needles, scissors, cottons and silks in perfect compartments. Beneath all these is a false bottom lined with red watered silk, for love-letters. Many a time has Alexandra stood gazing at this box with that certain wonder of the aristocrat at the treasured toys of the bourgeoisie. ‘I fail to see what mitigation soever can be offered for that box,’ she remarked one day, in Felicity’s hearing, to the late Abbess Hildegarde who happened to be inspecting the sewing room. Hildegarde made no immediate reply, but once outside the room she said, ‘It is in poison-bad taste, but we are obliged by our vows to accept mortifications. And, after all, everything is hidden here. Nobody but ourselves can see what is beautiful and what is not.
The adverb soever (‘of any kind, in any way, to any extent’), from so + ever, is not a word I see often except as a combining form packaged in words like whatsoever, wheresoever and howsoever. Its Google Books curve shows a long and seemingly irreversible decline, echoed by the red underlines Microsoft Word sees fit to bestow on it:
1 : to any possible or known extent — used after an adjective preceded by how or a superlative preceded by the <how fair soever she may be> <the most selfish soever in this world>
2 : of any or every kind that may be specified — used after a noun modified especially by any, no, or what <gives no information soever>
It is the second of these that Spark uses in The Abbess of Crewe. Oxford Dictionaries labels soever archaic or literary, and it certainly has that flavour for me. I don’t remember seeing it used (unironically) in any 21stC texts, and few enough 20thC ones.
Shakespeare used various forms of it, covering both of M-W’s senses: in King John (‘Whose tongue so ere speakes false’), Love’s Labour’s Lost (‘How low soever the matter’), The Merry Wives of Windsor (‘of what complexion soever’), Richard III (‘Of what degree soever’; ‘Whose hand soever lanced their tender hearts’), and Troilus and Cressida (‘How rank soever rounded in with danger’).
In the centuries since, though, it has faded from use to the point where its appearance in a fairly modern book is virtually an event for a curious-word-loving reader.