In the end, Brenda had settled on her green tartan skirt and boots, accompanied by a high-necked, long-sleeved, Chinese-style blouse in white silk, with a white woollen shawl in case of chills.
John seemed to approve of her outfit. He had just admitted Tony to the Volvo. Scanning Brenda up and down, he nodded.
"You look quite elegant, my dear."
Quite? Perhaps he was using the word in some old-fashioned sense. Absolutely elegant. Her own parents had thought so. And he had said 'my dear'.
When I was teaching English as a foreign language in Russia, I remember explaining how 'quite' could mean either 'fairly' or 'absolutely', depending on the type of adjective it was modifying. Compare 'quite interesting' and 'quite fascinating', for example.
I think the textbook I used talked of 'weak' and 'strong' adjectives, but a quick Google search suggests these are more commonly called 'gradable' and 'non-gradable' respectively.
However, I wouldn't class 'elegant' as a non-gradable adjective (and neither would 1.4 million Google results for "very elegant"), so what's going on here?
The OED says that the use of 'quite' "as an emphasizer: actually, really, truly, positively; definitely; very much, considerably" isn't confined to non-gradable adjectives, so I think that accounts for 'quite elegant'.
It adds that some of the senses of 'quite' can be difficult to distinguish "except when used with non-gradable adjectives", which is what the character of Brenda picks up on in the extract from The Fire Worm.