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Arnold Bennett: The Old Wives’ Tale

Bennett claims to have written this story after seeing an old woman come into a restaurant where he used to dine. The old woman was fat, shapeless, ugly and grotesque. She kept dropping her parcels and switching from seat to seat. In short she was ridiculous and, in Bennett’s view, a woman who clearly lived on her own. But, thought Bennett, she may well have once been young, slim and even beautiful. He determined to make a story of her though using not just one woman but two, specifically two sisters. Frankly, this story does not seem to have followed his original intent but it is still one of his finer novels.

Constance and Sophia Baines are two sisters in the town of Bursley, Constance a year older. Their parents own a well-respected draper’s shop but their father had a stroke some years earlier and is permanently bed-ridden. Their mother runs the shop with the aid of Mr. Povey while Mr. Baines is permanently watched. Constance is, well, constant, while Sophia is more flighty. On one of the rare occasions when she is watching her father, she is distracted (and attracted) by Gerard Scales, a sales representative and leaves her father. He chokes and dies. Her mother does not approve of Mr. Scales, so they elope. At that point the stories of the two young women diverge.

Constance remains and eventually marries Mr. Povey. They have a son, Cyril, headstrong and flighty like his aunt. They manage the shop well but Bursley is changing. Then tragedy strikes. Mr. Povey’s cousin, a neighbour and owner of a nearby shop, kills his drunken wife (who has neglected their son). He is eventually hanged for his crime. The shock kills Mr. Povey and leaves Constance a widow. She struggles on but Cyril has left to study art in London and when a neighbour buys up the lease and marries her chief shop assistant she accepts the inevitable and sells up. Cut to Sophia.

Sophia’s marriage lasted only a short while. Scales has inherited what seems like a lot of money and they go off to Paris and have a good time but, very soon, the money runs out and, when she refused to write to her family for money, he walks out on her. She does not see him again till he is dead thirty-six years later. She stays in Paris and, after much difficulty, runs a boarding house. She lives through the Siege and Commune of Paris and makes a very successful living till, by chance, someone who knew her family meets her and her address is reported to Constance. By chance, she has received a good offer for her boarding house, so she takes it and returns to Bursley. The two sisters live out their life with first Sophia and then Constance dying, though not before Sophia is called to Gerard Scales’ deathbed, arriving too late.

The story is, of course, much more detailed than this outline. Bennett manages to tell a fine story, showing the changing life, particularly in Bursley but also in Paris of the 1870s, with considerable passion. Indeed, the local politics play a fairly significant role, even if they remain on the periphery. The detailed study of the two sisters, their mother, Mr. Povey, Cyril and others gets us well involved in their lives and concerns. Bennett was setting our to write a masterpiece and this may well be his masterpiece.

Publishing history

First published 1908 by Chapman and Hall