Everyday Crockery: Beginning The Old Wives’ Tale

ModernLibraryYou cannot drink tea out of a teacup without the aid of the Five Towns; … you cannot eat a meal in decency without the aid of the Five Towns … All the everyday crockery used in the kingdom is made in the Five Towns—all, and much besides.

I’m just four chapters into The Old Wives’ Tale and I already feel that I owe Arnold Bennett an apology. I never should have taken someone else’s word about himnot even (maybe, especially not) Virginia Woolf’s. My aim, as I started reading The Old Wives’ Tale for the first, time, was precisely not to let Woolf set the rules of engagement: Dorian and I said we wanted to read Bennett on his own terms, and so I tried to put Woolf’s critique out of my mind and just read. (I did browse the commentaries on Bennett included in my Modern Library edition from Rebecca West, W. Somerset Maugham, H. G. Wells, Henry James, and J. B. Priestley: as you’d expect, there are lots of tempting morsels of opinion in them, but I’m going to leave them alone too for now.) Still, I’ve read “Modern Fiction” and “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” often enough that I couldn’t help but bring low expectations with me: “Life escapes,” she says, magisterially, “and perhaps without life nothing else is worth while.”

Is The Old Wives’ Tale lifeless? I think it’s too soon to say, though I would readily describe the chapters I’ve read so far as lively. Is Bennett a “materialist,” as Woolf also declares? Sure, OK, that seems fair so far; I can’t tell yet if that is such a bad thing. It’s what you do with your materials that matters, right? But I don’t want to spend this post (or this read-along) parsing or arguing with Woolf anyway. What I can say is that nothing I vaguely knew or thought I knew about Bennett prepared me for the things that have so far delighted me about this novel, which is much stranger and funnier and edgier than I expected.

330px-Arnold_Bennett's_PhotographExhibit A here, for me, is the tooth pulling. The whole story of Mr. Povey’s toothache and his (highly relatable!) anxiety about going to the dentist is brilliant. “He seemed to be trying ineffectually to flee from his tooth as a murderer tries to flee from his conscience”: that’s a great line, capturing both the man and the mood perfectly. I loved Constance and Sophia’s trepidation as they prepare the laudanum (“Constance took the bottle as she might have taken a loaded revolver … Must this fearsome stuff, whose very name was a name of fear, be introduced in spite of printed warnings into Mr. Povey’s mouth? The responsibility was terrifying”)and then the rise in both their courage and their impudence as they feel their power over their “patient.” But I did not expect the climax of this scene to be Sophia going at the unconscious Mr. Povey with a pair of pliers (“This was the crown of Sophia’s career as a perpetrator of the unutterable”); I didn’t anticipate her getting the wrong tooth after all, or her wanting to keep the tooth (eww?)—or its becoming the occasion for a terrible breach between the sisters, when Constance violates the sacrosanct privacy of Sophia’s work-box to seize “the fragment of Mr. Povey” and throw it out the window. The whole sequence is hilarious and graphic (that long description of the loose tooth in “the singular landscape” of Mr. Povey’s open mouth!) and, well, strange, though I can’t quite put my finger on why I find it so. Is it just me?

penguin-bennettI suppose its main function is to help establish the characters of the two sisters, who certainly reveal themselves as they squabble over the tooth: “the beauty of Sophia, the angelic tenderness of Constance, and the youthful, naïve, innocent charm of both of them, were transformed into something sinister and cruel.” A lot of these four first chapters is about setting up the contrast between them, which I know becomes a major structuring principle of the novel as it goes on. Chapter 4 makes this point really clearly, as it looks at how they have “grown up”: “The sisters were sharply differentiated,” the narrator remarks, in case we couldn’t tell. Constance’s name anticipates her more homely path, while Sophia’s hints at her “yearning for an existence more romantic than this” (as the narrator says about Mrs. Baines’s unexpected kinship with her defiant daughter). I’m enjoying both sisters equally so far: it doesn’t seem as if Bennett is setting them up as antagonists, despite their differences. When Sophia showed her first signs of rebellion, I wondered if she was an Edwardian cousin of Jane Eyre or Maggie Tulliver—but (again, so far) I don’t think so. Her restlessness seems more about her personality than about her circumstances: do you agree? (I loved Mrs. Baines’s attempt to treat Sophia’s “obstinacy and yearning” with castor oil.) Similarly, Constance’s quieter conduct doesn’t (so far) seem like mindless conformity, or capitulation to family or societal pressures: it’s just who she is.

BennettTwo other features of these early chapters that contributed to my sense of the novel’s strangeness, and then I’ll close, because the point of this exercise is to start a conversation, not try to “cover” everything! First, the elephant. I did not expect an elephant at all, much less a thumbnail version of “Shooting an Elephant.” What’s up with the poor elephant, “whitewashed” and shot by “six men of the Rifle Corps”? The thing about a detail like this is that while you can always explain it away as a plot devicein this case a spectacle to get people out of the house and thus leave Sophia there to encounter Mr. Scales and neglect her father for that fatal intervalthat doesn’t solve the problem of why the author used this specific plot device. It could have been anything: a fire, a runaway horse, a tightrope walker, a live elephant!

Second, there’s Mr. Baines’s death, which (like Mr. Povey’s pulled tooth) I found shocking, both because it is so graphically awful and because, in spite of that, it is also weirdly, uncomfortably, comicalor, again, is that just me? I mean, there’s nothing at all funny about the poor man’s condition, much less his actual death, but then we get this:

After having been unceasingly watched for fourteen years, he had, with an invalid’s natural perverseness, taken advantage of Sophia’s brief dereliction to expire. Say what you will, amid Sophia’s horror, and her terrible grief and shame, she had visitings of the idea: he did it on purpose!

“John Baines had belonged to the past,” comments the narrator, and his funeral puts that past, characterized as “mid-Victorian England,” also into the novel’s past. I’m keen to see where Constance and Sophia go next. To be honest, I was worried that I might find the novel dullthat it would be a mass of details, a lifeless inventory of “everyday crockery”but instead I had to discipline myself to stop reading at the end of Chapter 4.

So, what do the rest of you think of The Old Wives’ Tale so far? What strikes you as significant, provoking, lively, or lifeless? There’s a lot in these chapters that I haven’t mentioned, maybe including the aspects you thought were the most interesting! Comments, questions, or favorite quotations welcome, either here or on Twitter, where our hashtag for the read-along is #OldWivesTale21. I don’t know if we are going to try to avoid “spoilers,” exactly, but those of you who have read the whole novel already might just be patient with us newcomers as we move through it on our schedule.

Tune in next week chez Dorian for Chapters 5-7!

21 thoughts on “Everyday Crockery: Beginning The Old Wives’ Tale

  1. Karen Naughton June 11, 2021 / 8:44 am

    Thanks for this analysis. I, too, thought the tooth episode was strange. Being an animal lover, the elephant scene made me sad. Your question about why an elephant, specifically, made me think. Perhaps the elephant illustrates that nature will out despite society’s strictures, just as Sophia’s personality refuses to be cowed.

    On an unrelated note, I enjoyed Bennett’s irony in his narration.


    • Rohan Maitzen June 11, 2021 / 12:27 pm

      That’s an interesting idea about linking the elephant to Sophia – though if so, it bodes ill for her future! 🙂


  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) June 11, 2021 / 10:40 am

    “it’s just who she is” – I think this is why Bennett starts with the girls as teenagers, why he skips their childhood. He wants then formed already, with full personalities.


    • banff1972 June 11, 2021 / 12:24 pm

      Good point. I hadn’t thought about this. It *is* unusual to start the heroes off as teenagers.


      • Rohan Maitzen June 11, 2021 / 12:28 pm

        Yes, that’s an interesting thing to think about. It doesn’t rule out the possibility that we will come to blame “society” or other forces for how they were formed, but they are so different that without a context for explaining that divergence we are kind of stuck with a more essential idea of identity.


  3. banff1972 June 11, 2021 / 11:07 am

    Such a great start to our little project, Rohan! Thank you.

    Funny, I was thinking last night, as I was finishing this week’s reading, “Wow, I owe Bennett an apology!” Woolf definitely had me braced for something much stodgier.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about that elephant too. I mean, who wouldn’t? Didn’t see *that* coming! As you say, the specific choice matters beyond its function in the plot. Maybe connected to foreignness, a contrast to the novel’s interest in Englishness, Staffordshire as the center of the center? Or, to adapt the chestnut from Hartley about the past as a foreign country, foreignness as a function not of place but of time: those benighted 1860s. I really had not expected Bennett, who’d I’d vaguely associated with naive liberal progressivism, to be so critical of the tendency of the modern to act as though it were the endpoint of enlightenment.

    (Which might also relate to the tooth and the stroke: bodies are always going to give us trouble.)

    That said, the novel’s genial irony seems widely distributed. The past is also gently mocked: my favourite bit was the long parentheses in part III of A Battle taking the boots to “providence.”

    Absolutely agree about the even-handed portrait of the sisters. I appreciate that. Sophia has more of the better lines so far, but as a Constance myself I’m glad to see her getting her due. Bit worried she’s going to end up with Povey, though.

    Even more worried about Scales. My bounder alert is going off…

    Last thought for now: I wonder if Lawrence read this book: thinking of the two sisters structure that preoccupied him for many years, eventually becoming The Rainbow and Women in Love.


    • Rohan Maitzen June 11, 2021 / 12:30 pm

      Ha, yes: he has “bounder” written all over him.

      I was really interested in the introductory comments about the Five Towns, something I ended up not including in the post which was already getting long. Your point about “the modern” gives me something to keep thinking about in terms of how he has positioned both the setting and the characters in relation to modernization.


  4. Carol Gorton June 11, 2021 / 2:17 pm

    Wow Rohan, and this is just the first 4 chapters. We are all in for a treat.


  5. hopester99 June 11, 2021 / 4:54 pm

    This book is a delight! I got it from the library thinking I’d lurk here and would quietly drop the project if I didn’t like the novel. Instead, I ended up buying it, couldn’t stop reading, and finished it a few nights ago. Sorry that I lacked your discipline, Rohan, but I promise not to give any spoilers.

    There are so many sharp observations, sometimes deep, sometimes pointed, sometimes both…like George Eliot (whom I love) but less preachy. Bennett is good at nailing the most fleeting thoughts and impressions that cross his characters’ minds–such as the example you gave about Sophia’s irritation at her father’s inconsiderately timed death. That was just one strand of her overall response in the aftermath, but an important one (and doubtless the most startling). It made me think about how often we have a host of swift, varied emotional reactions in the wake of a big event, some of them not so flattering or predictable. It takes a great novelist to point out the subtlest, the ones we would stuff away, and to do so without bogging down the forward momentum of the plot.

    All the characters feel quite real to me, the two teenage sisters included. I could just see Sophia, milking her role of the bolder sister, with Constance’s very conservatism and shock egging her on… The tooth-pulling was a more extreme example of the same dynamic as when she tried on her mother’s dress and fell over in it while Constance watches, scandalized. The girls’ self-important solemnity when they realize they’re in charge of Mr. Povey is so true to adolescence; so is the speed with which that evaporates once their mother comes home and takes over (“resuming knowledge and control of that complicated machine–her household” being one of my favorite lines).

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the elephant incident weren’t based on a true event. I haven’t tried to google it, just a hunch… if so, part of Bennett’s interest may be, simply, the urge to work in some weird true thing that happened. (I mean, weird things really do happen in small towns; for instance, in the 1930s a dead and not particularly well-preserved whale was toured around south Arkansas and north Louisiana on a train car, for townspeople to come out and see.) It made me sad too, Karen, because so often the fate of elephants on this planet is deeply disturbing. I also think the spectacle sets up some other things that happen later.

    The passage about how Mrs. Baines and Mr. Critchlow have kept Mr. Baines alive solely with the strength of their fiction about his importance and dignity–the “incorrigible pride” passage you reference, Dorian–blew me away.

    Likewise the pie passage. Basically, everything about that pastry made me laugh, including “Mrs. Baines covered her unprecedented emotions by gazing into the oven at the first pie. The pie was doing well, under all the circumstances.”

    But even the throwaway lines are good, like “she read only with her eyes” when Sophia was trying to distract herself with a book while she was wondering what was going on with Mr. Povey. That’s a perfect, concise description of what it’s like to try to read with something else on your mind.

    Anyway, thank you for doing this! You’ve introduced me to a writer I didn’t know before, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the discussion.


    • Rohan Maitzen June 11, 2021 / 5:34 pm

      What a great bunch of comments, and welcome to the club of the pleasantly surprised! Oh my gosh, yes: the dress scene is also great, as is the pie.

      I agree that Bennett really captured something about teenaged girls. Another bit that struck me as completely right was his comment about how “the secret nature of the universe would have seemed to have been altered” if they switched sides of the bed. This is their “normal,” which of course sets them and us up to be shocked by change!

      In her introduction to my edition (which I kind of skimmed, trying to avoid specific spoilers!), Francine Prose says that TOWT is “a powerful and convincing novel written by a man, from the point of view of a woman.” In this time when there is so much highly charged discussion about who has the right to tell which stories or to speak from what points of view, I found that a provocative comment to include.


  6. Vincent June 13, 2021 / 11:41 pm

    I’m thinking the girl’s cruel thoughts about Maggie are the setup for some “oh shit, I’m old now” irony later on.

    The character of the two girls seems a bit rigid to me, like they’re destined to be types rather than fully dynamic people, that worries me. But this book is so funny and engaging I don’t expect to be put off. Thanks for the virtual reading group, I like this book a lot so far!


    • Rohan Maitzen June 14, 2021 / 9:28 am

      That’s a really good point about the two sisters: they are so VERY opposite. I hope that Bennett tells a story about each of them that isn’t just a formulaic laying out of their differences. Like you, I’m encouraged by how sharp the novel is so far, though.


  7. JacquiWine June 14, 2021 / 10:49 am

    Really enjoyed your post on this, Rohan, and the two sisters seem very well defined. While I haven’t read this Bennett, I do have some experience of reading some of his other novels, perhaps most notably The Grand Babylon Hotel, which I recall as being hugely enjoyable and entertaining. A caper of sorts about the strange disappearance of a Prince, originally published as a serial in a journal / magazine. Have you read it by any chance? I have very fond memories of reading it!


    • Rohan Maitzen June 14, 2021 / 12:56 pm

      This is my first Bennett altogether, but when Dorian and I were considering our options for a read-along I looked up some of his others and that one definitely looked like a lot of fun. I have a feeling I will be reading more AB when this is done, which in many ways is the best possible outcome for an experiment like this!


  8. sparrowpost June 14, 2021 / 11:59 am

    What an enjoyable summer read this has been so far! I’m so glad you and Dorian decided on this one. I’m a little shocked as I’ve never heard of Bennett before; his writing is so clear and it draws a reader right in. There’s a certain joy that he brings to all the details. During quiet moments, I’ve been envisioning the satisfied joys of Mrs. Baines’ pastry day.
    I’m very curious about the two sisters’ future and if Sophia will end up with Scales. I have a feeling that her massive guilt might not allow her to do so but we shall see. She’s a force to be reckoned with.
    I thought the pairing of the elephant’s funeral (of sorts) and John Baines’ very curious. In both cases, there’s a sort of pageantry with death.
    Like you mentioned, there’s a weird and unsettling comical effect going on in this novel and I’m curious how it’s going to play out.


    • Rohan Maitzen June 14, 2021 / 12:57 pm

      I am glad too! “Satisfied joys”: what a great way to put that. I don’t make pies but my mother makes wonderful ones and that whole section made me think of her.

      I like the idea that there is some kind of parallel between the elephant and John Baines. Neither of them really belongs in the (modern) Five Towns.


  9. Carolyn Ruane June 14, 2021 / 1:20 pm

    I loved how you started with the quote:” You cannot drink tea out of a teacup without the aid of the Five Towns; … you cannot eat a meal in decency without the aid of the Five Towns … All the everyday crockery used in the kingdom is made in the Five Towns—all, and much besides.” This is often done by Bennett is is showing how proud of the crockery made in The Five Town. As a person who is from there I feel the same, When I go to a restaurant I always turn over plates to see where they are from.

    It is interesting to see other perspective.
    Bennett is good at giving you pieces on characters so I picture is built up in your mind of who they are.

    Sophia wants to be a teacher and so this upset her mother as she wants her work in the shop not read and learn. I like Sophia as I read a lot.
    Constance is behaving as the good daughter as she works in the shop. Sophia stays reading near her dying father.

    The Elephants are unusual aspect as animals did tour towns in Bennett’s day. It was so said of one dying and the description of ” Six men of the Rifle core” killing the ill one. Sophia did not go to see them but stayed with her ill father and the shop. The mutilation of the dead animal was horrific; people taking feet for umbrella stands or the meet; we assume to eat.
    Sophia with her dead father is great writing as he dies as you feel you are in the room watching. The description of the face is almost horrific. With a funeral tea lasting five hours and Sophia not attending. Is a long affair.

    There could be a love interest brewing for Sophia as she stayed in the shop in the hope that she might see Mr Scales rather see the elephants.

    Look forward to next 3 chapters.


    A member of the Arnold Bennett Society


  10. lynnblin8356 June 15, 2021 / 10:30 am

    Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to discover Arnold Bennett. The author of whom he reminds me most is Flaubert. Like Flaubert his syntax is intricate and sharp with many a surprising culmination. (“They ceased to be young without growing old, the eternal had leaped up in them from its sleep”, especially strange as it is a comment on the silly dispute between the two sisters). The juxtaposition of the incident with the elephant and Mr. Baines’s death- a coherence that is carried through with intricate care. Just one quick example- the word “corpse” first used in reference to the elephant, “everyone wanted to see the corpse”- then used in the same chapter to refer to Mr. Baines, rather than the more nuanced word “remains” or even “body”. The diverse reference to “body” is another characteristic of these four chapters – Mr Povey’s tooth referred to as “the fragment of Mr Povey”, Mr Baines” referred to many times as “an organism” and then…he was so far gone in decay and corruption, that there seemed in this contact of body with body something unnatural and repulsive.” ( decay and corruption are not innocent terms – not to mention “repulsive”) “the mass of living and dead nerves”, and then the vividly detailed description of his “remains”, when Sophia walks into the room.
    I was further intrigued by the narrative voice in the description of the conversation Sophie has with her father. The very sensual description of Sophia followed by the narrator’s reaction: “A deepening flush increased the lustre of her immature loveliness as she bent over him. But though it was so close he did not feel the radiance. He had long outlived the susceptibility to the strange influences of youth and beauty.” Is this not a strange comment on a father/daughter relationship.
    These first four chapters are intriguing, though I must confess I don’t know where the narrative voice is taking us. Like Flaubert, Bennett is disdainful and, not only of the passing era, but also of the new one. Like Dickens, his characters are sometimes on the verge of caricature. It will be interesting to discover how change will continue to be portrayed. I have read with interest the comments of the readers, and am surprised that no one has detected the cruelty in the narrative voice that goes beyond an critical view of society. But these are only first impression. Looking forward to the next installment. Many thanks. Lynn Blin

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rohan Maitzen June 15, 2021 / 1:01 pm

      That Flaubert comparison is really thought-provoking. The painful explicitness of poor asphyxiated Mr. Baines’s death does remind me of the ugliness of Emma Bovary’s. I’ve seen comparisons of Bennett to Balzac, and in his own Preface to TOWT Bennett mentions Guy de Maupassant’s Une Vie as a model. So that’s a lot of French influences – putting me at a disadvantage, as I have read relatively little of any of these authors.


      • banff1972 June 15, 2021 / 1:30 pm

        Agree that Lynn’s post is so interesting. But I don’t see a lot of Flaubert here. Flaubert is *so* coruscating: nothing survives his irony. I am not getting that same vibe from Bennett; his irony feels more gentle to me. (Maybe: less disparaging is what I mean.) I had honestly not thought of the novel as cruel so far. I will be thinking about this as I read on!


        • Rohan Maitzen June 16, 2021 / 1:33 pm

          Since learning that Margaret Drabble wrote a biography of AB I’ve been thinking that I can feel some resonances there: her fiction (that I’ve read, anyway) has something of the same grim but funny tone and attention to grubby details.


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