It’s not long since I read my first book by Arnold Bennett – his detailed advice about how to acquire literary taste – and all of a sudden I’ve read two. I’ve voracious right now.
Actually, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) – which I have been erroneously calling The Old Wife’s Tale since forever – was the choice of somebody at my book group. I was quite enthusiastic to read a Bennett novel because of what a significant name he was in the early 20th century, and only a little less enthusiastic when I saw that it was over 600 pages of quite small font. And, boy, does he fill those pages. (In a great way, for the most part.)
Bennett’s thing is detail. I kind of knew that in advance, from Virginia Woolf’s famous essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown‘ – which I can’t now resist quoting, because it does set you up for the level that Bennett goes to:
He, indeed, would observe every detail with immense care. 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).
Now, Woolf was being rather snide about this. With her impressionistic style, it was inevitable that she would look down on this sort of Edwardian writing; she was of the generation that would break away from it. Fine. But I actually found I rather loved being immersed in this detail. The focus of it is two ordinary women: sisters, Constance and Sophia. They live in a house adjoining a shop run by their father, on a square in an ordinary Staffordshire town. During this upbringing, their whole lives are in these rooms and this town. They know everybody; everybody knows them. It is emphatically a novel of English life (at least at this juncture), and Bennett spares not the pen in writing about it:
Constance and Sophia, busy with the intense preoccupations of youth, recked not of such matters. They were surrounded by the county. On every side the fields and moors of Staffordshire, intersected by roads and lanes, railways, watercourses and telegraph-lines, patterned by hedges, ornamented and made respectable by halls and genteel parks, enlivened by villages at the intersections, and warmly surveyed by the sun, spread out undulating. And trains were rushing round curves in deep cuttings, and carts and waggons trotting and jingling on the yellow roads, and long, narrow boats passing in a leisure majestic and infinite over the surface of the stolid canals; the rivers had only themselves to support, for Staffordshire rivers have remained virgin of keels to this day. One could imagine the messages concerning prices, sudden death, and horses, in their flight through the wires under the feet of birds.
In this world, Bennett describes every detail of their life. Such detail that it seems impossible to summarise, and also someone seems impossible that it could be fiction. Were we only to hear about (say) the death of their father, their marriages, their turmoils and victories, then it would feel plotted. As it is, we hear about the way in which they walk from room to room, the customers whom the assistants respect and those for whom they will not stand up, the manner of the tea tray and the teacups. Everything is here; every moment.
There are, however, a few moments of major event in the novel – even of sensation. Somehow this doesn’t feel ill-measured alongside the tone of Bennett’s writing, though by rights it should – perhaps the occasional extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary is simply another element of realism. One I shan’t mention, but is very interestingly used. The first such moment is Sophia absconding.
She runs off with a local charmer – and leaves the pages of the novel maybe only a sixth of the way through (so I thought). We are left to watch Constance grow older, marry, have a son, and continue to live next to the shop. It was a beautifully told story – the emotions Bennett describes of mother, daughter, sister, and wife seem (to one who is admittedly none of these things) to be perfectly judged and very effectively portrayed. All of it feels real.
Bennett – I did not realise beforehand – is very amusing. In the hands of Hardy, The Old Wives’ Tale would be gut-wrenching. This is not a comic novel, but without the levity of his style, it would have become a tragedy. Constance and Sophia both suffer a fair amount, and yet Bennett doesn’t leave the reader miserable. And, of course, I forgot to note down any examples. He doesn’t go for bon mots or witticisms, per se, but takes an authorial step back to tease or raise an eyebrow at his characters. It’s wonderful, and made me laugh out loud a few times – the only instance I can find isn’t the finest, but it made me laugh. Mr Povey is shop manager, and his way with labels is not to be underestimated: ‘It is not too much to say that Mr Povey, to whom heaven had granted a minimum share of imagination, had nevertheless discovered his little parcel of imagination in the recesses of being, and brought it effectively to bear on tickets’.
I have said little of the second half of the novel. And that is because I would have advised to Bennett that he cut it altogether. Around the halfway mark, we are flung back to the moment Sophia departed the novel – and we follow her instead. We abandon the ageing Constance in favour of the once-again-young Sophia, and see her life in Paris. As a separate novel, it would be quite interesting – and the contrast between the sisters’ destinies is doubtless well orchestrated – but I should have much preferred it to be summarised in a page or two. I don’t think I have much patience with novels which cover the same timespan more than once, and I certainly prefer a short novel to a long one – had The Old Wive’s Tale *actually* been The Old Wife’s Tale and only looked at Constance’s life, I should have liked it all the more. (But I will concede that this opinion was not shared by anybody at book group, and thus I may well be in the minority.)
So, I shall certainly return to Bennett when I’m in the mood for this level of expert detail. That won’t be every week, nor yet every month, but it might be every year. I’m glad to have finally made the acquaintance of one of the most notable names of 20th-century writing – and to have realised something of his worth away from the unjustly negative reputation he might have been lumbered with.