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.
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 him—not 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.
Exhibit 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?
I 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.
Two 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 device—in 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 interval—that 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, comical—or, 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 dull—that 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!