IT IS fair to say that Arnold Bennett is an unfashionable writer. His culinary legacy — the “omelette Arnold Bennett”, created for him in the Savoy — is now better known and better liked than his books. He never really recovered from Virginia Woolf’s devastating attack on him, as she sought to overturn the literary conventions and depose the literary heroes of an earlier generation in her 1924 essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”. For Woolf — and, it seems, for many subsequent readers — Bennett was simply a hack writer, someone who sought to “hypnotise” his audience with a series of familiar tricks, but who had little to say about real life, and less to say about real people.
But then you encounter The Old Wives’ Tale, and you engage with a book recognised even by some of his fiercest critics as a work of real genius. Here is a story that takes readers from the early Victorian world of the 1840s to the Edwardian era in which it was written; a tale that travels from small-town Staffordshire to the siege of Paris and back again; a narrative that touches on alcoholism, murder, mental illness, prostitution, death, disease, and marital strife. This is a book with two executions at its heart: a man hanged for murder in England, and another dispatched in a horrendous scene by the guillotine in France. It is not so much a novel as an epic. And yet, through it all, Bennett never loses sight of the individuals that he is describing. It never seems less than real.
Part of the success of the book lies in Bennett’s ability to deploy precisely those tricks that Woolf condemned. She heartily disliked his willingness to pile up details and simulate reality with commonplace description. Just think of the opening of The Old Wives’ Tale, which briefly glances on the two central characters — the sisters Constance and Sophia Baines — before describing the “county”, then the “district”, then “the square”, and then the home in which they live. It is pages before Sophia and Constance return.
Or think, towards the end, about the long and painstaking evocation of the Parisian Pension Frensham, which does not simply describe the furnishings in detail — the doors, the window drapery, the mirrors, the antlers, and the engravings on the wall — but goes on to explain the system by which people were able to order wine.
True enough, these details sometimes risk overwhelming, or even boring, the reader. Just occasionally, they descend to the level of pathetic fallacy or sub-Freudian allusion. The “raw gash in the earth” which Sophia encounters on an illicit walk with her lover; the carnival of death surrounding that French execution, with its sudden, almost orgiastic ending: these are, perhaps, a little too obvious. Yet Bennett’s descriptions are only rarely less than interesting, and they often work magnificently, brilliantly conjuring up a world, a world-view, and the people who inhabit it.
For Church Times readers, this may mean that the denominational differences he refers to, and which might be lost on a more secular audience, speak volumes. For all readers, the panorama depicted provides a sort of social history of the Victorian period: its anxieties about faith, its enthusiasm for technology, and its developing economic, cultural, and political assumptions.
Bennett, though, is more than the sum of his tricks. Contrary to Woolf’s slighting comments, The Old Wives’ Tale reveals a writer who sees well beyond the surface and does far more than simply “hypnotise” his readers with a steady amassing of stuff. The two sisters — sensible, stolid, stay-at-home Constance, and wayward, flighty, self-possessed Sophia — are depicted with a striking sensitivity and empathy. His minor characters, even the tragic courtesan Madame Foucault, whose artful dressing and still more fastidious make-up “almost procured her pardon for the crime of being over forty, fat, creased, and worn out”, are likewise sketched in with huge humanity. If they live, it is not only because their surroundings seem compellingly real; it is also because they, too, seem true to life.
The Old Wives’ Tale is much more than just a good story by a master storyteller. It raises some important questions, too. A history of two lives, it explores the ageing and maturing — or not maturing — which all of us will face. As the world changes around them, as they experience love and heartbreak, life and death, Constance and Sophia are forced to confront the painful realities of life: those experienced by every generation, and those generated by the new circumstances of their own modernising age.
More intriguingly still, Bennett poses the problem of our own sense of self, and the intriguing possibility that we are born, not made; for, although each sister experiences a profoundly different life, in truth, they remain very much themselves and far more like each other than perhaps either is willing to admit. Towards the end of the novel, the two middle-aged women are once more reunited, if not wholly reconciled. Both are back where they began, and, if each one has learnt lessons from her life, it is not wholly clear that they have changed all that much.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Acting President of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett is published by Vintage Classics at £10.99; 978-0-0995-9535-9.
THE OLD WIVES’ TALE — SOME QUESTIONS
- Bennett describes John Baines’s death as the death of Mid-Victorian England. In what ways do morals and ideals change over the course of the novel?
- To what extent do travel and distance change the course of characters’ lives?
- “Doesn’t it give you a funny feeling, sleeping in this room?” Does each generation attempt to replace the next in the novel?
- What do you make of the marital relationship between Constance and Samuel Povey?
- How are motherhood and the role of the mother portrayed in the novel?
- “Sophia had sinned. It was therefore inevitable that she should suffer.” How does Bennett portray the Wesleyan morals of this period?
- How did you interpret the guillotine scene in Paris?
- “She was sorry for her landlady, but at the same time she despised her”. What do you make of Madame Foucault, and Sophia’s relationship with her?
- “Nothing could change Sophia.” In what ways have the sisters changed, and in what ways are they essentially the same at their reunion?
- “I must have forgotten how dirty it was!” How does Sophia react to Bursley and its inhabitants upon her return?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 April, we will print extra information about our next book. This is Tregian’s Ground: The life and sometimes secret adventures of Francis Tregian, gentleman and musician, by Anne Cuneo. It is published by And Other Stories at £10; 978-1-90827-654-4.
Francis Tregian was an English recusant, thought to be the compiler of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a 17th-century manuscript collection of Renaissance keyboard works. Tregian’s Ground is a fictional but meticulously researched version of his life, described by the author as an effort to recapture the voice of a man “torn between two sensitivities, two cultures, two religions”.
Tregian narrates his action-packed tale from his beginnings in Cornwall, through London, France, Rome, and Amsterdam. Along the way, he meets such characters as Byrd, Morley, Palestrina, Monteverdi — even Shakespeare — and offers readers a glimpse of musical and religious life in Renaissance Europe.
Anne Cuneo was born in Paris in 1936 into an Italian family, and grew up in Italy, England, and Switzerland. After an impoverished and often difficult childhood — her father was assassinated at the end of the Second World War, and she spent a period in a church-run orphanage — she studied literature at the University of Lausanne, and enjoyed a long and illustrious career. Not only a prolific novelist and playwright, but also a journalist and film and theatre director, she was made a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters (France) in 2008, and was awarded the National Order of Merit (France) in 2013. She died in 2015.
Books for the next two months:
May: Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout
June: Knowing Anna by Sarah Meyrick