The Old Wives' Tale

by Arnold Bennett

With a title like The Old Wives' Tale the prospective reader may wonder what this book is about. Written near the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, but concerning a stretch of time that begins nearly 50 years before that, Arnold Bennett's beautifully executed realistic novel concerns life and love in the Potteries district of middle England and in Paris, France. The two locales reflect the disparate fates of two at once similar and not-so-similar sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines. From their first names alone is intimated their personalities & thus their fates. (Can't you tell already who stays in England & who goes to Paris?) The book follows them from girlhood, through it all, and to the grave. Critics have called this work, "One of the most complete and satisfying novels of English provincial life," and I too concur.

Classic Bitch finally learns her lesson (after having been burned one too many times), and refrains from reading the book's introduction before reading the book itself. The irony is that this introduction would have spoiled next to nothing, but it does contain some very thoughtful writing about what makes The Old Wives' Tale great. To wit: In a broader sense, Bennett's novel is concerned with the effects of time & history on the lives of extraordinarily ordinary people; his characters are rendered with interwoven compassion and irony; he is expert at noting how human beings react to big issues by concentrating very hard on small issues. Life itself!

As for Classic Bitch herself, what stands out is the gentle and kindly omniscience of the narration. Only once does Bennett slip into first person, for a mere three concatenated sentences, reflecting on the death of a character. The effect is to at once augment the sense of true omniscience, yet also to refine the intimacy of the narration. Beautiful. Remarkably entertaining—though for different reasons entirely—is the author's treatment of the lone "sex scene" in the book (if it even can be called that). The reader must extend compassion to the author who was writing about Victorian times while only very newly on the cusp of Edwardian times himself. The net result is a baffling page of references to men who "worship the god Pan," and hence become "initiated" into a "cult," followed by another page about a male character (whose tone is described as "masculine") "not altogether surprised at being startled" by the countenance of his expecting wife. (Note to high schools: This book would be completely safe material to be required reading in a painfully teenaged English class!) I love this book!!

Disciplined in the tradition of the French realistic novel against purple prose, here's a Bennett sampler, a few of my favorite lines from The Old Wives' Tale:
• "Real miracles never seem to be miracles, and that which at the first blush resembles one usually proves to be an instance of the extremely prosaic."
• "The driving-off of a wagonette can be a dreadful thing."
• "Each was deceiving the other: [the husband] hid his crime, and [the wife] hid her knowledge of his crime. False, false! But this is what marriage is."
• "She had accepted Gerald as one accepts a climate."
• "It was appalling—the passage of years; and the passage of years would grow more appalling."

Finishing this book is like saying goodbye to friends. I shall miss the Baines girls. Everyone should read this book; it is the consummate example of classic literature. And I might note here that next year (2007), it will celebrate 100 years in publication! It is indeed a timeless classic. And if that is not enough to persuade you to pick it up, believe it or not, the last chapter of The Old Wives' Tale is entitled, "What Life Is." Not only do you have to admire Arnold Bennett for attempting this, but I daresay there are some answers to be found within.