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The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett — emotional lives of women

Cover of The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett, a study of two sisters and the different paths in life they take

My expectations for The Old Wives’ Tale were — unfairly as it turned out — coloured by Virginia Woolf’s assessment that Arnold Bennett’s novels suffered from a surfeit of trivial detail. His focus on inconsequential facts meant he sacrificed any insight into the inner lives of his characters, she claimed.

Bennett does indeed love detail. In the opening passages of The Old Wives’ Tale he gives us the precise geographic location of the (fictitious) town of Bursley, Staffordshire, where most of the book is set.

A little way to the north of them, in the creases of a hill famous for its religious orgies, rose the river Trent, the calm and characteristic stream of middle England. Somewhat farther northwards , in the near neighbourhood of the highest public house in the realm, rose two lesser rivers, the Dane and the Dove, which quarelling in early infancy, turned their back on each other and the one by favour of the Weaver and the other by favour of the Trent, watered between them the whole width of England and poured themselves respectively into the Irish sea and the German Ocean.

This is the kind of meticulously detailed prose that prompted Virginia Woolf’s to write a scathing critique of Arnold Bennett’s work. In her essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown‘ she accused Bennett of cramming his novels with excessive and trivial detail.

He would notice the advertisements; the pictures of Swanage and Portsmouth; the way in which the cushion bulged between the buttons; how Mrs. Brown wore a brooch which had cost three‐and‐ten‐three at Whitworth’s bazaar; and had mended both gloves—indeed the thumb of the left‐hand glove had been replaced. And he would observe, at length, how this was the non‐stop train from Windsor which calls at Richmond for the convenience of middle‐class residents, who can afford to go to the theatre but have not reached the social rank which can afford motor‐cars, though it is true, there are occasions (he would tell us what), when they hire them from a company (he would tell us which).

Given Woolf’s preference for an impressionistic style of writing and a focus on character over plot, it’s not surprising that she didn’t rate Bennett.

I rather enjoyed his attention to detail however. It struck me more than once when reading The Old Wives’ Tale that Bennett had the eye of a cinematographer.

He often begins a scene with a long establishing shot before zooming in for a closer view of a place or one of the characters. So in the beginning we get the big picture view of The Potteries region before the lens hones in on the draper’s shop run by the Baines family on The Square in Bursley.

Separate Paths in Life

This is the home of the sisters Constance and Sophia Baines, the two women whose lives we follow from their teenage years within the family, to their separate lives in adulthood and through to their reunion in old age.

True to her name, Constance is the level-headed, good natured daughter. She stays in Bursley, marries the mild-mannered assistant who works in the shop, and takes over the business when her mother retires. Because of her placid temperament and aversion to conflict, she fails to control her son who becomes self-centred and thoughtless.

The younger daughter Sophia is the more impulsive and independent-minded girl. She hates working in the shop, setting her sights instead on becoming a teacher. until a handsome sales rep begins to pay her attention. He’s her ticket away from the dreary confines of life in a small town where everyone knows everyone.

It’s not until they’ve eloped does she discover just what a useless article she has married. After a brief marriage to this spendthrift dissolute, she sets out to make her own way in life, becoming the proprietor of a successful hotel in Paris.

Life Choices

The Old Wives’ Tale is essentially a study in character. Bennett takes two women and sends them off on completely different paths in life. The underlying question is which sister fares better. Constance who opts for a quiet life, devotes her whole life to running a household and shop little troubled by world affairs or Sophia who takes the path of adventure, witnesses an execution, survives a siege and ends up a much respected and well-off businesswoman?

In Constance’s eyes, her sister’s life has been a disaster:

She perceived fully now for the first time the greatness of that disaster. Sophia’s charm and Sophia’s beauty — what profit had they been to their owner. She saw pictures of Sophia’s career, distorted and grotesque images formed in her untravelled mind from Sophia’s own rare and compressed recitals. What a career! A brief passion and then nearly thirty years in a boarding house! And Sophia had never had a child, had never known either the joy or the pain of maternity. She had never even had a true home.

I think we’re meant to see this as the view of someone whose own horizons had been extremely limited. And rather than feel Sophia’s life hadn’t amounted to very much, we are invited to admire her resilience and ingenuity when left to her own devices in Paris.

When they are re-united in the final section of the book, it’s clear that the differences between them are on the surface only. Fundamentally they have remained true to the traditions and values of family and community in which they were raised.

A Changing World

Beyond the character-study, The Old Wives’ Tale shows the extent of socio-economic changes that affect the members of the Baines family and their community. towards in the final decades of the 19th century. Electric tramcars cause great excitement when they make their first appearance in Dursley, to be followed some years later by the motor car. Shopping habits change, threatening the future of the draper’s shop and the status of The Square as the hub of the town. The working class movement gathers strength while the church/chapel loses support. By the time the novel ends, approximately 1896, the era of modernisation is in full swing.

This was my first experience of Arnold Bennett. It will not be my last. There are six more novels set in his fictionalised community of “The Five Towns”, which form part of the Staffordshire Potteries region in which he was born. They were all commercially very successful, perhaps one of the reasons why Woolf and some of her Bloomsbury cohorts were so sniffy about him? Sadly most of his other novels no longer seem available in print.

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