Servants, Chasms, and Signboards: More of The Old Wives’ Tale

ModernLibraryWhat with servants, chasms, and signboards, Constance considered that her life as a married woman would not be deficient in excitement.

This will probably be a somewhat disjointed post, which reflects my experience of The Old Wives’ Tale to this point. Maybe it’s because we are reading the novel in fairly short segments that it feels herky-jerky to me, more an assemblage of incidents than a unfolding design. Bennett keeps introducing new elements which create their own small-scale dramatic arcs, rising to a climax or crisis and then being replaced by something else. It’s not that these incidents aren’t individually engaging: I’m just finding the novel as a whole somewhat disorienting. I’m enjoying it—it reads easily—but if (as is often remarked) novels teach us how to read them well, I seem to be finding the learning curve a bit steep here!

That said, as I made my way through these first chapters of Book II I did start to think that the unity I was looking for might be arising precisely from the accumulation of these vignettes. The Old Wives’ Tale is very much a novel about the passage of time, and thus about the accumulation of events, in particular lives (in this section, particularly Constance’s). That is kind of what life is like, right? Things just keep happening. Maybe Bennett is letting that accumulation in itself be the meaning: maybe it’s a novel about the process of living.

macke woman readingIt is certainly striking already how much Constance’s life has changed since we first met her. In these four chapters she has: gotten married and moved into her parents’ bed; hired a new servant; acquired a dog; been astonished by her husband’s installation of a signboard for the shop; discovered that her husband is a smoker; hosted her first family Christmas; had a baby (and been through a number of parenting crises); and lost her mother. Bennett’s choice of things to highlight confuses me: too much attention goes to what seem like the wrong things, unimportant things (the bed, the dog, the smoking, the signboard). But maybe it only seems this way because I don’t quite get what Bennett is doing with them. There’s such a long section about the bed, for example. In a way, it is a nice set piece: it effectively conveys the disorientation and poignancy of growing up, of realizing that your place in the cycle of life has changed. The description of Constance lying in bed waiting for her husband is also quite sensual:

To see her there in the bed, framed in mahogany and tassels, lying on her side, with her young glowing cheeks, and honest but not artless gaze, and the rich curve of her hip lifting the counterpane, one would have said that she had never heard of aught but love.

It’s explicitly a sexual maturation that has taken place; her new consciousness of what marriage involves seems to lie behind her distaste at the prospect of Maggie’s marriage to Hollins (“Her vague, instinctive revolt against such a usage of matrimony centered round the idea of a strong, eternal smell of fish”). I like the bit about the bed quite a lot, on its own. I just find it odd which details of Constance’s life Bennett decides to linger over.

victorian-breastfeedingProbably the part of this instalment that surprised me the most, in that respect, was the lengthy section from infant Cyril’s point of view. Dorian’s post focused our attention on really interesting questions about narrative voice in the novel. I posited in the comments that maybe Bennett is just not very good at controlling this, or else (and perfectly reasonably) he is not particularly concerned about it: maybe, as a writer, he is thinking about other things. He shifts our attention around a fair amount in these chapters too, sometimes again within a single paragraph—but I remain uncertain that it matters a great deal that or how he does this. I mean, obviously it is of legitimate interest to us as a matter of technique, and it also matters in terms of attributing comments to the characters or to the narrator, but is Bennett doing this in an especially artful or thematically purposeful way? I’m not convinced. However, I do think he is quite good at capturing different perspectives, and the ‘how it looks to a baby’ part was pretty convincing: “The whole mass of Fan upheaved and vanished from his view, and was instantly forgotten by him”; “terrific operations went on over his head. Giants moved to and fro.” It’s fun, hilarious, experimental. But why include it? Why do we need it, for the goals of this specific novel? That’s the question a number of incidents raised for me. I like the parts: I’m just struggling to fit them together.

A few other things of note from these chapters:

Constance is pretty offensive about Maggie (“the dehumanized drudge”?!). These remarks are definitely places where it matters whether we hold the character or the narrator responsible: I wasn’t always sure (“A woman was definitely emerging from the drudge”?).

The narrator is pretty offensive about Constance’s weight (“fat and lumpy”?! her radiant face “atoned for the figure”?!). Bennett’s fixation on a woman’s weight as a “tragic” measure of her aging and decline is set out right in the Preface, of course:

I reflected concerning the grotesque diner: The woman was once young, slim, perhaps beautiful . . . there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout aging woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind.

I wonder if Sophia will age in the same way or retain her “form.”

I was interested in the nuances of class that emerge between Constance and her husband around the issue of his paper collars, and in their mutual awareness of the ‘chasm’ that more attention to them might create between them.

I was startled at how graphic the description of Constance’s labor was. Bennett gives us Constance’s point of view here, which puts us right in the midst of the “cataclysm.”

Cyril’s birthday party was great. I mean, it’s awful, but it’s brilliantly rendered, especially Cyril’s rage at someone else eating his cake.

What do you think we should make of Cyril’s thieving? It seemed to me mostly a device for creating conflict between his parents, and for setting Mr. Povey up as more of a patriarchal figure (literally but also figuratively, politically) than he had been before.

Finally, something I’m still really appreciating is Bennett’s humor. Just for instance,

One day the headmaster called at the shop. Now, to see a headmaster walking about the town during school-hours is a startling spectacle, and is apt to give you the same uncanny sensation as when, alone in a room, you think you see something which ought not to move.

I wonder if that’s how my students feel when they run into me in the grocery store. 🙂

How are you doing with the novel at this point? I’m sure people are responding differently to it than I am, or responding to different aspects of it. I look forward to finding out! 

14 thoughts on “Servants, Chasms, and Signboards: More of The Old Wives’ Tale

  1. Carol Gorton June 25, 2021 / 11:19 am

    Thank you Rohan. I have read TOWT a few times and find something new each time. I am always horrified at the description of Maggie. We would never describe someone like this, but then we were not living in these times. When you have read it a few times, and know what is coming, you do read it in a different way, and notice things more. I have to admit, m favourite part is Sophia’s life. I cannot wait for you and Dorian’s observations. Thanks again for choosing TOWT.


  2. Daphna Kedmi June 25, 2021 / 11:52 am

    Rohan, I have read the novel, and I find it difficult to look at it in this segmented way. I probably shouldn’t have ceded to the temptation of reading through the novel, so that the difficulty I am having is entirely due to my lack of discipline in this matter.
    I do think that the disorientation you sense when reading the novel, or it’s being jerky with new elements creating a dramatic effect and then seemingly disappearing, is the result of the segmented reading. I won’t give out any spoilers, but seeing it as a whole, I found the narration quite linear, and each of the more dramatic stepping stones along the way, a cohesive part of a grander scheme of development, rather than simply vignettes. But you could only realize that in hind sight having read the complete novel.
    When you are reading continuously, you know where you are spatially (even in a Kindle) in the developmental arc of the story, and you tend to put less focus on the separate events realizing, if you trust the author, that they are there for a reason, and that they are necessary for the coalescing of the story into a significant whole. Once completed, this whole will shed a ‘hindsighted’ light on earlier events, and give them the meaning they lack in the segmented reading.


    • Rohan Maitzen June 25, 2021 / 12:05 pm

      Of course it’s true that knowing the whole is going to make the parts take their proper place – but on the other hand, I have done other read-alongs like this where we read a part at a time and I think it was easier to feel how the parts were adding up (even if we didn’t know the sum yet). With this novel I do know where I am in the whole (between the progress info on my Kobo and the chapter / book sections and so on): you are right that this helps provide some guidance and also expectations. I know that there’s a lot of novel left!

      I also routinely assign long novels in parts in my classes: it’s true that in these cases I already know the whole so one thing I can do is help shape the discussion to make sense of the pieces but again, I really think that in these cases even before you’ve finished the novels you can tell what kind of pattern is unfolding. So, while I am prepared to wait and see how Bennett pulls it all together, I’m not 100% convinced that the segmentation I’m experiencing isn’t partly because of the novel itself!

      It’s not about plot, for me, but about significance. Whenever I’m reading a book that’s new to me (for a review or blog post, for example), very often well before I’m finished I know what I want to take notes about because the novel is revealing its key ideas and patterns to me as I go through. Things don’t firm up until I see how it all works out, but what I’m missing so far in this novel is that sense of accumulating meaning.


  3. Carolyn June 25, 2021 / 11:52 am

    I concur that the description of the labour was in depth at times. This must have been unusual for a man to write about what he cannot experience; Bennett again showing he understands a woman’s perspective.

    Odd Mrs Bains moves in with her sister Harriet so she does not live with the young married couple.
    Constance says” It is like her to prepare the house and to flit early away so as to spare the natural blushing diffidence of the said couple”.

    Maggie hands in her notice as she is to marry; Maggie” I wouldn’t work my fingers to the bone for ye, Miss Constance”. Implication she would for her own house. Constance said of her “an organism” and ” now permitting herself ideas about change. Shows disrespect.

    Maggie on her husband to be ” but what about his habits” Maggie said “He won’t have no habits with me”. This is a double negative so literally he will have some!

    Constance “REAL beginning of wifehood. [ There had been about nine other real beginnings is the past fortnight].

    Whatever Mr Povey did was good because he did it. Constance said of him2 she did not love him for his good qualities, but for something boyish and naïve that there was about him, an indescribable something that occasionally, when she was close to him, made her dizzy”.

    The wedding present from Aunt Harriet of 12 silver guilt egg cups and spoons” it must have cost money”. Thus actually bought.

    When Mrs Bains returned 2 You’re stouter ” …” if you aren’t careful you’ll be as big as any of us”.

    Times were hard the “mediaeval grate was designed to heat the flue rather than the room”.

    When Aunt Harriet dies ” such a funeral as Aunt Harriet herself would have approved”.

    Tales of the boneshaker was good as if you were watching an old movie of it.

    When the new sign is to go up the town crier is asked to advise people ” My bell’s at wum “. Fabulous to see people talking as people would now at times in Stoke on Trent today.

    When Cyril steals a florin from the till; and uses it to buy smoking items . The picture he painted for his Mother’s birthday is thrown in the fire.

    I am enjoying this book.

    Carolyn From Arnold Bennett Society.


    • Rohan Maitzen June 25, 2021 / 12:08 pm

      Yes, the boneshaker! I loved that part: very vivid, as you say.


  4. vincent gammill June 25, 2021 / 4:24 pm

    What’s surprised me so far is how separate the stories of Sophia and Constance are. I don’t mean it’s surprising that Sophia hasn’t shown up in Constance’s story, although that makes me sad thinking of my own siblings. I mean it’s surprising that these separate narrative threads aren’t cross-cutting (to borrow from cinema) more, as in a few chapters on Constance, some on Sophia for comparison, and back again. More frequent cross-cutting in narrative seems more common to me (based on gut feeling, I’ve got no real evidence), so this structure of sticking with one character through many years is a bit unnerving. Unfamiliar. Just like Constance, I’m always wondering what’s happening with Sophia. Or does Constance barely think of her?

    I expect we’ll go back in time at some point in the novel to catch up with Sophia and that will feel almost like jumping back in time. Knowing the future of Constance at that point might make for some unfamiliar feelings of suspense and comparison in me as a reader.


    • Rohan Maitzen June 26, 2021 / 9:21 am

      That’s such a good point about the novel’s structure. I wonder if the Sophia section will refer to Constance’s story or if we will have to do the work of making connections and comparisons.


      • banff1972 June 29, 2021 / 3:28 pm

        Agree–Vincent’s point is well-taken. I’ve been wondering about this too, especially about whether Constance is thinking of Sophia. I suspect not really, but I’ve already been surprised a few times, so I guess we’ll see. *I* however have been thinking of Sophia a lot, and rather champing at the bit to hear what is going on with her. I’m not sure what to make of this–after all, it might be just me: but the deliberate forgetting of one narrative strand whets our appetite for it. There are, however, some hints of that other life, like the offhanded reference to the Commune. Bennett, I suppose, is saying something about the way things can be so important to us and not important at all to others. And here I feel we are back to the question of narrative voice and point of view…


    • Carol Gorton July 1, 2021 / 11:15 am

      You have to be patient Vincent, all will be revealed.


  5. banff1972 June 29, 2021 / 3:34 pm

    Thanks for this, Rohan. Those shifts in interest–which you rightly say are hard to connect, hard to put together–remind me of the sudden jumps forward in time. In some way, it is the most linear story imaginable–one thing after another, and in that it mimics life (How did I get to be 50? etc). But the elisions and jumps trouble that placidity. They also seem cinematic to me: hadn’t thought so at the time, but both Vincent’s comment about the lack of cross-cutting and Carolyn’s description of the Boneshaker as like an old movie put me on this language. And after all cinema was becoming a powerful art form/popular medium at the time.

    I confess I do not love Bennett’s humour, though. A little heavy-handed for me. Yes to the birthday party, though, that was great. The depiction of Cyril’s consciousness did not convince me, but I’m impressed with Bennett’s interest in and respect for the trials of domesticity and women’s experience. As to Cyril, that boy is bad news, I am not a fan so far!


  6. lynnblin8356 July 1, 2021 / 2:59 am

    What has struck me the most in this past reading session, is the evolution of Mr. Povey, seemingly confirming a duo of narrative voices to develop this evolution. There remains the ridiculous Mr. Povey, but wherever I imagined this “fuddy-duddy” was headed, it is not where he ends up and the end of this reading session. Who for example could have imagined a Mr Povey who would be so attentive, so admiring of Constance? When Constance refuses to wear a dress “that he was not a thorough-going admirer of:

    She never wore it again.” The incident affected him for days. It flattered him; it thrilled him; but it baffled him. Strange that a woman subject to such caprices should be so sagacious, capable, and utterly reliable as Constance was! For the practical and commonsense side of her eternally compelled his admiration.

    And who would have imagined Mr Povey to grow in such recognition of and consideration for his wife? It remains confusing because the predominant narrative voice does not seem to like him, but there is such finesse in the description of the little details he notices of Constance and the fact that he considers her a partner and he listens to her, that we can’t be helped but being moved by him:
    […] her insistence that the simultaneous absence of both of them from the shop for half an hour or an hour twice a day would not mean the immediate downfall of the business – had remained in his mind ever since. Had she not been obstinate – in her benevolent way – against the old superstition which he had acquired from his employers they might have been eating separately to that day.

    Mr Povey also turns out to be a fine negotiator in the art of making Constance feel as a real partner and not simply a wife under his thumb, so to speak. Take for instance his reaction when Constance announces her pregnancy:
    His capacity to double-check his impulse to “reply in his grand, offhand style, “Oh a letter will do!” to announce the good news to Mrs. Baines. Instead he asks for Constance’s advice. “You think that will be better than writing?”

    This use of a rhetorical question where the affirmative answer therein included is in fact Constance’s shows us a Mr. Povey who not only takes his wife’s feelings into consideration, but in a turn of a hat knows how to put this consideration into words.
    The death of Mrs, Baines slipped quickly into a sentence (as was the death of Aunt Harriet) is in such stark contrast with the delivery of Cyril (and yes such details of the excruciating pain, the mental and physical turmoil by a man might today be considered as appropriation) cannot help but lead us to reflect on – not the unimportance of death- but the inevitability of it. I wonder too about the long section on Daniel Povey– a character who, though of a questionable “state of mind” is the most likeable. Even though the enumeration of positive qualities qualified by the degree adverb “so”, is suspicious, Daniel’s contribution to a change in Samuel cannot be ignored:

    Daniel taught him a lot; turned over the page of life for him, as it were, and showing the reverse side, seemed to say. “You were missing all that.” Sam gazed upwards at the handsome long nose and rich lips of his elder cousin, so experienced, so agreeable, so renowned, so esteemed, so philosophic, and admitted to himself that he had lived to the age of forty in a state of comparative boobyism. And then he would gaze downwards at the faint patch of flour on Daniel’s right leg, and conceive that life was, and must be, life.

    It is also to be noted that it is following his exchanges with Daniel that Constance becomes pregnant. Was there a new fervor or frequency in their lovemaking which enabled Constance to conceive?
    The part Daniel is to play in the what follows is unclear. Samuel in this section emerges with a new depth of what is a nearly spiritual awareness of life when he learns he is to become a father. The prospective father’s reflection on Daniel confirms that likeable though he may be, there is a shallowness that is contrasted with a deeper, more sensitive Samuel than has been portrayed up until now. See the passage where he rejects Daniel’s empty chattering:

    “ he despised Daniel for a man who has got something not of the first importance on the brain, His perspectives were truer than Daniel’s/ […] He entered into the shadow of nature. The mysteries made him solemn. What! A boneshaker, his cousin, and then this. “well, I’m dammed! Well I’m damned!”. He kept repeating, he who never swore.
    Rohan, I too would have begun with your quote about “servants, chasms, and signposts” , Bennett’s use of enumerations are indeed very interestin.


    • Rohan Maitzen July 1, 2021 / 11:14 am

      I felt as if Daniel was introduced pretty abruptly as a major player; now that I’ve read this week’s section, I see that I underestimated just how big a role he was going to play!

      Your comments on Samuel’s development as a husband are really interesting. I was especially struck by the struggle for control over Cyril. I expect all parenting couples are familiar with some version of the challenge it can be when the two of you disagree about the right course of action! Cyril is a hard case. I’m really amused at his transformation into an aesthete in the next section.


      • banff1972 July 1, 2021 / 11:46 am

        As I prepare to write my thoughts on this week’s section, I am struck again by how often the novel surprises me, both re: Daniel and Cyril. Even seemingly minor characters (though I guess Cyril might become major) surprise.


      • lynnblin8356 July 2, 2021 / 5:24 am

        Yes, indeed, Rohan. I’ll wait for Dorian’s comments on this next session ( which is a stunner and which I completed last night). There is much to be said.


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