Classics Club Spin Delivers Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale
I didn’t get my wish granted by the fairies who manage the Classics Club spin sadly. I was rather hoping for Rebecca but instead I have ended up with one of the longest books on my Classics Club list: The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett.
Bennett was a big name in the early twentieth century though has largely fallen out of fashion now. He may even be better known for the omelette named after him when he ordered one containing haddock while staying at The Savoy hotel.
He wrote about 30 novels, the most famous being those he set in the fictional community he called “Five Towns” — inspired by the Staffordshire Potteries region in which he was born.
The Old Wives’ Tale, published in 1908, is also set in that region. It was apparently Inspired by an old lady that Bennett saw in a cafe, and began to wonder how her life had been when she was younger.
In the novel he focuses on two sisters who grow up as daughters of a shopkeeper in a rural town. Sophia, the defiant, romantic one, runs away to Paris where she marries a cad. Her shy sister Constance remains in England and marries her father’s mild-mannered shop assistant. The sisters are reunited many years later when they are both old, giving Bennet the opportunity to reflect on the effect time and environment have had on their personalities
According to The Encyclopedia Britannica, Bennett’s fiction formed a bridge between the English style of novel and the French realism of authors like Gustav Flaubert and Honoré de Balzac who emphasised detailed description of people and scenes. They describe The Old Wives’ Tale as ” a masterpiece of literary realism.”
Though I have some of his “Five Towns” novels on my Classics Club list, The Old Wives’ Tale will be my first experience of Arnold Bennett. I already know to expect that this will be a slow read – it’s more than 600 pages long and very detailed. This extract from the first chapter gives a taste of his style:
The Baines’s shop, to make which three dwellings had at intervals been thrown into one, lay at the bottom of the Square. It formed about one-third of the south side of the Square, the remainder being made up of Critchlow’s (chemist), the clothier’s, and the Hanover Spirit Vaults. (“Vaults” was a favourite synonym of the public-house in the Square. Only two of the public-houses were crude public-houses: the rest were “vaults.”) It was a composite building of three storeys, in blackish-crimson brick, with a projecting shop-front and, above and behind that, two rows of little windows. On the sash of each window was a red cloth roll stuffed with sawdust, to prevent draughts; plain white blinds descended about six inches from the top of each window.
According to the Classic Club “rules” I have until 29 January to read this book. It works out at just over 22 pages per day which should be doable (famous last words???)
19 thoughts on “Classics Club Spin Delivers Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale”
I like the sound of the plot of this but not read it. I think it may be one of those books that once you’re 60 or 80 pages into it you will start to enjoy it as it comes together. 🤓
Have to admit I failed to plough through to the end of this a few years ago. After getting about 70 pages in, nothing much was happening so I abandoned ship. I’ve read Bennett’s ‘Clayhanger’ trilogy and really enjoyed those novels. Maybe I’ll give the old wives another chance.
Interesting! Despite his having fallen out of fashion I would be keen to read him because of the settings, if nothing else. Will be interested in your thoughts!
I read this book recently because I heard something about Arnold Bennett on the radio and realised that I had never read anything he had written. I found it compelling reading and not hard going at all. I followed it up with Clayhanger which I also enjoyed. I don’t think this will be as hard as you fear.
Actually, 22 pages a day does sound doable. Mind you, you also have a review to write so… maybe up it to 30??? I’m sure you can!
If you have the time… twenty two pages a day sounds about right. Well, it would be about all I could manage.
I have never read this author, I hope it ends up being really good for you
The Old Wives’ Tale is on my CC list too, though not on my spin list this time, so I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it. I read quite a bit of Bennett long ago and liked him a lot, but I don’t think I read this one, as far as I remember.
I hadn’t realised when I put it on my list just how long it is – wishing now I had chosen one of his shorter books
Well I for one am glad that this one cropped up, because I had never heard of this book.
nor have I; I have heard of the term: Old Wives Tales; and I did view this term on Google it is about superstition and mothers warning their daughters about what is out there; now I am thinking of that Stevie Wonder song: “Very Superstitious Writing on the Wall…”; I can’t even tell what is what since folks tend to speak ill right in your presence but above your head or they used jargon that you cannot understand but I am not doing that, nor do I know how. I mean at times, it feels like something else is going on and I am missing whatever that it is. Nope, this time it is simply a reading of a book not familiar to many; titled: The Old Wives Tale by Bennett. Anyhow, I now know of this title, and thank you for this knowledge.
I don’t think he crops up very often in reading lists maybe because people think his style is too detailed and thus dull
Good luck with that!
I might need some more good luck once I have started it and realised how long it is
Dare I say, “well you did put it on the list, Karen”! I have never done Classics Club because I just know I can’t commit BUT I was thinking yesterday that if I did I would find 20 short classics – or 5 and repeat them multiple times!
Seriously though, I did Old Wives Tale in my second last year of high school and remember enjoying it. I think – but don’t rely on this multi-decade memory – that it’s a long but readable book. Sometimes shorter books can take just as long because they might be more complex in structure, language, voice. However, it is very descriptive as you show! 22 pages a day should be doable. I know some who would eat that up, but not me usually! When I have reading group books to finish, I often end up having 50 pages or so a day and that can be a struggle. Just finding the time to do it.
I don’t think this will be a quick read just because of that level of detail. I find these days I’m just too tired at night to read much and never get the time during the day
Oh dear. It sounds as if making the list has consequences that aren’t always wished for. Good luck!
Well yes we do take a risk with the list. I see other participants often commenting that they are dreading reading their chosen book – I really don’t understand why you would put such a book on your reading list. It’s meant to be fun, not a punishment
It’s one way of getting rid of an ‘ought’, I suppose. ‘Well, I would have, but unfortunately it wasn’t the one that came up’ – sort of thing. Except … it did.