The Old Wives' Tale is a novel by Arnold Bennett, first published in 1908. It deals with the lives of two very different sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, following their stories from their youth, working in their mother's draper's shop, into old age. It covers a period of about 70 years from roughly 1840 to 1905, and is set in Burslem and Paris. It is generally regarded as one of Bennett's finest works.
The Old Wives' Tale
Bennett was initially inspired to write the book by a chance encounter in a Parisian restaurant. In the introduction to the book, he says
...an old woman came into the restaurant to dine. She was fat, shapeless, ugly, and grotesque. She had a ridiculous voice, and ridiculous gestures. It was easy to see that she lived alone, and that in the long lapse of years she had developed the kind of peculiarity which induces guffaws among the thoughtless.
I reflected, concerning the grotesque diner: "This woman was once young, slim, perhaps beautiful; certainly free from these ridiculous mannerisms. Very probably she is unconscious of her singularities. Her case is a tragedy. One ought to be able to make a heartrending novel out of the history of a woman such as she." Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque—far from it!—but there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.
Enoch Arnold Bennett (27 May 1867 – 27 March 1931) was an English writer. He is best known as a novelist, but he also worked in other fields such as the theatre, journalism, propaganda and films.
“No English novelist ever suggested more unspeakable things, and got away without being understood, than me in that book,” wrote Arnold Bennett to a friend after The Old Wives’ Tale was published in 1908. The novel received almost universal critical acclaim – so much so that Bennett is alleged to have responded: “I don’t read my reviews, I measure them.” But appreciation for the book has been curiously muted ever since. It’s never been out of print, but it’s not exactly set the world alight, either.
I first read it out of homage to my Midlands industrial ancestry and expected an earnest exposition of the “it’s grim up north” mindset. I certainly didn’t expect scenes like this:
Her eye caught the guillotine again, and was held by it. Guarded by gendarmes, that tall and simple object did most menacingly dominate the square with its crude red columns. Tools and a large open box lay on the ground beside it. […] There was a clicking noise … She shrank down to the floor in terror and loathing, and hid her face, and shuddered. Shriek after shriek, from various windows, rang on her ears in a fusillade; and then the mad yell of the penned crowd, which, like herself, had not seen but heard, extinguished all other noise. Justice was done.
Quite how Bennett got away without being understood there is beyond me. Sophia Baines has by this point eloped to Paris with a travelling salesman, abandoning the stultifying prospect of a life spent assisting her older sister Constance in the family drapery shop in Bursley, one of the fictional “Five Towns” of the Staffordshire potteries. Sophia’s husband Gerald, however, insists on travelling straight to Auxerre to watch the execution of a murderer, whose severed head is supposed to fall neatly into that oh-so-symbolic “large open box”.
It’s fairly obvious from even the short passage above (this scene takes up a whole chapter) that Sophia experiences the execution as a traumatising sexual violation. In the previous chapter we’ve been told, carelessly, that she is “no longer a virgin” – and this “orgy” fills an empty space in the story: her honeymoon. The whole scene works by aural imagery as “a gigantic passionate roar, the culmination of the mob’s fierce savagery” signals the climax. Real knowledge – of sex, marriage, perhaps the nature of humanity itself – comes here at Auxerre. Gerald, Bennett pointedly observes, is consorting with a prostitute somewhere in the mêlée below.
I’m being a bit salacious here, admittedly, but even so, I couldn’t reconcile this with the Arnold Bennett described by Virginia Woolf as a “materialist”, who writes novels as crammed to excess as the omelette that bears his name and “spend[s] immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring”. Even if we remember that in the 1920s, when Woolf went for him, she was just an upstart Bloomsbury neophyte and Bennett had been in the bastion of British publishing for 20 years – she had a point to prove – and it’s a verdict that’s proved surprisingly enduring. (Margaret Drabble, a long-time admirer and biographer of Bennett, always blamed snobbery.)
The Old Wives’ Tale’s sheer unexpectedness is partly why it is a book I want to share. Sophia’s experience of the execution encapsulates what, for me, The Old Wives’ Tale is really about: ordinary people caught up in the complexities and contradictions of a historical moment they can’t comprehend, governed by inexorable forces beyond their control and from which they cannot escape. The Old Wives’ Tale is about the coming of modernity, a process endlessly renewing itself, captivating and then overtaking each generation in its course. Woolf, though I hardly dare say it, is wrong: it is precisely the “true and enduring” aspects of life that are Bennett’s theme.
The one thing that doesn’t surprise about this book, then, is the revelation that the passionate, impetuous Sophia has lived almost exactly the same life as Constance, who married the draper’s assistant, had a son and stayed in the house she was born in all her life. For Sophia, living through the siege of Paris and the Commune “meant chiefly that prices went down”. There is some irony in that observation, but it is not harsh or bitter. That, says Bennett, is what it is to be human.
This is the side to Bennett’s writing that I find curiously uplifting, despite the apparent fatalism of the plot: the tenderness with which he recognises that our families, upbringing and environment imprint us for life. We can rage against it, like Sophia (or Bennett himself, who left the Potteries as a young man and never lived there again), but it will always be visible in the intimate tiny details he catalogues, like this moment, when he describes Sophia recoiling from the execution above:
By subscribing to our newsletter, you will be noticed As soon As new content is released.
Don't miss any content, subscribe NOW;)