The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

The Old Wive's TaleIt’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.

30 thoughts on “The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

  • July 25, 2016 at 6:59 am
    Permalink

    I’m afraid I’m with Virginia Woolf on this one. Although I did read some of his Five Towns series – and he is quite delectable in small gulps.

    Reply
    • July 25, 2016 at 9:28 pm
      Permalink

      Yes, small gulps is a good idea – I think it would get a much after a while!

      Reply
  • July 25, 2016 at 7:54 am
    Permalink

    Try ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ or ‘The Card’ for a different tone.

    Reply
    • July 25, 2016 at 9:28 pm
      Permalink

      As I say, I’ll be taking a bit of a Bennett break for a while… but might try those at some point! Though not sure I want a different tone…

      Reply
  • July 25, 2016 at 8:27 am
    Permalink

    I love Bennett – I’m really glad that I chose the third book in a trilogy for one of the years in my Century of Reading because I absolutely adored Clayhanger. I love all the detail – I think that’s what I love about Dorothy Whittle, for example – all the detail about a house or a shop. Not that I don’t love Woolf, but for different things.

    Reply
    • July 25, 2016 at 9:29 pm
      Permalink

      True, Whipple is in some ways his descendant. Like you, I love Woolf and I like Bennett, but for very different things. Thank goodness we can have both!

      (And don’t worry, everybody knows who you meant :))

      Reply
  • July 25, 2016 at 9:27 am
    Permalink

    “Riceyman Seps” is my favourite of his work.

    Reply
  • July 25, 2016 at 9:27 am
    Permalink

    “Riceyman Steps” is my favourite of his work.

    Reply
    • July 25, 2016 at 9:30 pm
      Permalink

      I have that one. Good-o.

      Reply
  • July 25, 2016 at 11:50 am
    Permalink

    I’ve been waiting for you to review that book for quite some time because it’s been sitting on my shelf for over a year, waiting for the “perfect moment”, and it really looks like it’s going to be “up my street”. I love details, too.
    Where did you find VW’s comment, Simon ?

    Reply
    • July 25, 2016 at 9:32 pm
      Permalink

      Perfect! Do let me know how you get on with it, Izzy.

      I found VW’s comment by googling ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown online text’ or something like that – the whole essay is available online. I think every Eng Lit undergraduate ends up reading this essay, but I mostly remember that section from Hermione Lee reading it aloud in a lecture.

      Reply
  • July 25, 2016 at 2:50 pm
    Permalink

    Wonderful book – purchased some years ago before I had computer and had to prevail upon student son to do it for me. “No such book”, he stated after perusing Amazon. I peered over his shoulder and saw he was looking for “Old Wives’ Tail” !!”

    Reply
    • July 25, 2016 at 9:32 pm
      Permalink

      Haha! Brilliant! And what a strange novel that might be…

      Reply
  • July 25, 2016 at 3:27 pm
    Permalink

    You make it sound very appealing Simon – although having just finished something 600-odd pages long I don’t know that I’m ready for another….

    Reply
    • July 25, 2016 at 9:33 pm
      Permalink

      Oh fair enough! Yes, space ’em out… But I think you would love this when you’re ready for another chunkster, Karen.

      Reply
  • July 25, 2016 at 5:55 pm
    Permalink

    I haven’t read ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ but can heartily recommend ‘Buried Alive’ which is one of Arnold Bennett’s much shorter books. It is a very witty book and was made into a film in 1943 with Monty Woolley and Gracie Fields called ‘Holy Matrimony’. One of those happy occasions when the film is as good as the book. Definitely worth reading (and watching!).

    Reply
    • July 25, 2016 at 9:34 pm
      Permalink

      Oh, I had heard of the film and I think I’d even heard that it was based on a novel called Buried Alive, but hadn’t joined the dots and realised Bennett wrote it. Thanks v much – will definitely keep an eye out for that.

      Reply
  • July 25, 2016 at 7:42 pm
    Permalink

    Two short books of Bennetts that I think you would enjoy are The Card, as previously mentioned, and Helen with the High Hand. Both are domestic comedies with plenty of the detail you like. They are both favourites of mine.

    Reply
    • July 25, 2016 at 9:35 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks Michelle! Helen with the High Hand is an excellent title. And, of course, you sold me at ‘domestic comedies’.

      Reply
  • July 26, 2016 at 8:11 am
    Permalink

    I love this novel and have read it twice, very far apart in time. I do rather agree about the Paris episode, my least favourite bit. Clayhanger is great too.

    Reply
  • July 26, 2016 at 5:01 pm
    Permalink

    I’ve just read my first Bennett novel too, Babylon Hotel, which is witty and charming, and I’d like to try Anna of the Five towns next. Not sure about 600 page Old Wives!

    Reply
  • July 26, 2016 at 11:44 pm
    Permalink

    So interested to see that Arnold Bennet is emerging from a deep trough of neglect. I studied ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ for A Level, 50 years ago I am shocked to realise, but I have come across very few people who know it, let alone have had it as a set text. I loved it, and am pleased to be reminded that it might be time to read it again. The exam has been wiped from my memory, so I have no idea what we were asked, nor how I tackled it.

    Reply
  • July 28, 2016 at 2:25 pm
    Permalink

    Alas, I tried to read this novel when I was much too young for it, I think at about age 12. I will have to try it again.

    On another topic, Simon, can you post something about the next 19XX club? I can’t remember what year it is, although I have picked a book for it (so, duh, I could look at the book), but I also don’t remember what date we’re supposed to post. Since I write my reviews far in advance, I may have already passed that date in August, and I need to reserve it for the club. But I looked a few weeks ago to try to find your post (I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m subscribed to the person who announced it in the first place), and I couldn’t.

    Reply
    • July 28, 2016 at 9:19 pm
      Permalink

      Oh yes, I will post about it soon – thanks for the reminder! It’s the 1947 Club next, but you’ve got until October before you need to worry – Karen & I are going for March and October as the 19XX Club months :)

      Reply
  • July 28, 2016 at 4:41 pm
    Permalink

    Why not visit our website at http://www.arnoldbennettsociety.org.uk and bring yourself up to date. Next year we are celebrating his 150th birthday with a special year of events. Watch the website for moe details, and perhaps come over to The Potteries and see us.
    Carol
    Secretary – Arnold Bennett Society

    Reply
  • July 29, 2016 at 10:39 pm
    Permalink

    I LOVED this book, I thought it had everything I want in a good solid novel, full of clever details and descriptions, and very funny. What an observant man he must have been. I’m sorry he’s little thought of these days. There is a wonderful book by Sathnam Saghnera which I started reading (and very much enjoying) all unawares, and realized part way in that it is a modern version of OWT. I don’t think many people would recognize it as such. (It did tell readers on the jacket, but that just tells me how right I am not to read them – nothing could match the joy of slow discovery.)

    Reply
  • August 4, 2016 at 12:04 pm
    Permalink

    Hi Simon,
    I know modern literature is not necessarily your cup of tea, but you might be interested in this: . (HIU, as well as the Bennett)
    Susan

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: