Wednesday, June 7, 2017

five posts on Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale crammed into one

I returned for two days, and will now wander off somewhere else, so no writing for all of next week.  Two days, one to whine and one to glance at my vacation reading, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) by Arnold Bennett.

In ordinary circumstances, I would have taken many notes and written about the book for a week, but no note-taking while on vacation and see above.

Constance and Sophia are sisters.  Their life as teens takes up a quarter of the novel.  The sisters separate, Constance staying home, Sophia ending up in Paris, where she lives through the grisly Siege of the city.  Eventually, they reunite.  Eventually, they die.

This summary could be made by anyone who has read not the novel but simply the table of contents.  An innovation of Bennett’s is that the sisters’ stories are not interwoven but told separately, the stay-at-home first, the Parisian second.  It feels less like reading a six hundred-page novel than four separate hundred and fifty-page novellas, sequels but with a branching path in the middle.

Bennett was a great student of the French novel, of Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, and Zola, but there is little in the voice or technique of the novel that he could not have learned from William Thackeray.  Bennett’s narrator, in his incessant light irony, reminded me of the narrator of Vanity Fair more than that of Germinal.  He describes more furniture and clothing than Thackeray ever did.  That is like Zola.  And some of the Parisian scenes, especially the scenes around the 1870 war, come close to imitations of Zola.

The Old Wives’ Tale is a domestic novel, with intrusions of melodrama, so even the Siege of Paris chapter is about ordinary life during the crisis, albeit ordinary life as experienced and even determined by a strong-willed, upright Victorian woman.  The novel, the French part, at times resembles a mix of L’Assommoir and Cold Comfort Farm, with the industrious Sophia determined to reform the corruptions of Zola’s ethos – of Paris.  And heck if she doesn’t succeed.  Some of this stuff is pretty funny.  Bennett’s comedy is generally pretty strong.

Reading an earlier Bennett novel set in roughly the same place, Anna of the Five Towns (1902), seraillon wrote “[i]t’s as though Bennett has refused to let go of the dominant form of the late 19th century novel,” and The Old Wives’ Tale has the same feeling of continuity.  Anyone comfortable with the English Victorian novel ought to be happy with Bennett, as with Forster or Wells.  It is not yet 1910, when everything changed.  Bennett, like his contemporaries, critiques the values of earlier Victorians, but gently, mostly.  The long scope of the novel, which begins in the 1840s and ends in the 20th century, creates much of Bennett’s irony.  Sophia may have lived the more dramatic life, but back in the five towns every little change – like a store putting up a sign – is a source of drama.

The metaphysics of the novel is grounded and pessimistic, authentically Naturalist.  People follow their temperaments.  They change, and yet they do not, cannot.  Thus the strategic decision to start the novel when the sisters are teens, more or less formed, skipping their childhood.

This looks like my notes for the five-part, quotation-packed series of posts I am not going to write.  Oh well.  Strongly recommended to anyone with a basic sympathy for the form of the long Victorian novel.


  1. I've always wanted to read this novel, but nothing you have written about it draws me closer to it (except for the comment about comedy). I don't see how I can work it in, given that I'm about to embark on an effort to know almost as much about Forster as I do about Dickens and Hardy, in preparation for guiding a seminar on "Maurice" in early 2018. Your comment that Bennett could be a link between Thackeray and Forster, however, intrigues me, especially your emphasis on "Victorian" as you apply it (indirectly) to Forster, who has never seemed to me to be quite of the Victorian age. And after you read "Maurice" and the unpublished stories in "The Life to Come" you realize that you have to re-read ALL of Forster (which I haven't yet done) with a new code book in mind. That said, have safe travels as I hope to, since I'm a few weeks away from embarking on a journey to Oxford to study Mary Queen of Scots at Merton College, and then to Iceland with my husband. So good to see you back at the blog.

  2. I loved this book and I didn't know anyone else besides myself who'd ever read it! It did have a very Victorian feel about it which is probably why I liked it so much. I've since purchased Imperial Palace at a library sale and hope to get to it this summer.

  3. "Strongly recommended to anyone with a basic sympathy for the form of the long Victorian novel" - finally, something pitched to my exact demographic! But there are so many books in that form. Should this one come before Pendennis, for instance?

  4. Christopher, you might be thinking of a different Forster. I mean the pre-December 1910 Forster, the one writing before human character changed. He is much more Victorian than the later one.

    His Victorianness has two aspects. First, the intrusive, comic, ironic omniscient narrator, right out of Thackeray and Trollope. Bennett is in the same line. Second, the ideological basis of Forster's critique of rigid, misguided Victorian values is eminently Victorian. It is mostly out of Pater. And anyway, critiquing Victorian values is one of the main functions of the Victorian novel. See Thackeray, Trollope, etc.

    Speaking of Pater, does the Old Wives' Tale feature a character who is a worshiper of Pan? "We did tire later."

    Now, before Pendennis. I don't know. Probably? I think you would enjoy the novel a lot - it feels like Karen describes it - and the four part novella-like structure helps keep it light. Somehow I feared it would be ponderous, but that was not what I found.

  5. But now I see that I forgot the most interesting thing in the book, unless it is not there at all.

    I think that in the Parisian quarter of the novel Bennett assimilates the character of Sophia with the French setting by subtly, gradually working gallicisms into the writing, first in representations of speech, which is not so unusual, but eventually into lines attributable to the narrator and to Sophia's thoughts. The language of the novel becomes more French as time passes.

    But I took no notes. I have no examples. Maybe it is not really there. If it is, it is a heck of a trick.

  6. My appreciation for The Old Wives' Tale has only grown since reading it last summer. An alternate interpretation of my comment that Bennett "has refused" to let go of the 19th century novel is that he could be very much deliberately using it to make his fledgling modernism stand out. I also get the sense that his enjoyment in writing novels may only have been exceeded by his enjoyment in being somewhat blithe cavalier about it. There's a streak of Oscar Wilde in Bennett.

  7. A streak of Wilde - yes, even the self-destructive streak! The Woolf demolition was a self-inflicted injury.

    "fledgling modernism" is good. The "change" theme is central to the novel as a form, but I do not remember a Victorian so directly making social change the subject of the novel.