“This Rash, Mad Sophia”: More of The Old Wives’ Tale

Supremely and finally, the delicious torture of the clutch of terror at her heart as she moved by Gerald’s side through the impossible adventure! Who was this rash, mad Sophia? Surely not herself!

The first three chapters of Book 3 are easily the most exciting of The Old Wives’ Tale so far. It’s not exactly that a lot more happens than in the Constance chapters, which were pretty eventful, in their own way. It’s not even, or not just, that the main event in this instalment is a public execution (about which more in a minute): after all, one of the main events in Book 2 was a murder, also followed by an execution. But we weren’t present for either of those events, and their high melodrama is kind of muffled by the discourse around them. Overall, just generally, Constance’s life is lived in a lower key, as is life in the Five Towns where she has stayed put. 

Sophia, in contrast, ran away, leaving the Five Towns behind her literally and figuratively–although one interesting thing about her journey to Paris and the awkward outing to Auxerre is how she discovers she carries its values with her, as when she finds herself “preaching moderation” to her spendthrift husband:

In the Square she was understood to be quite without common sense, hopelessly imprudent; yet here, a spring of sagacity seemed to be welling up in her all the time, a continual antidote against the general madness in which she found herself. With extraordinary rapidity she had formed a habit of preaching moderation to Gerald. She hated to see ‘money thrown away,’ and her notion of the boundary line between throwing money away and judiciously spending it was still the notion of the Square.

There’s lots to discuss about these three chapters (which went by so fast that I was sorely tempted to read on into Dorian’s portion for next week!) but before I get into some particulars I want to comment on how this turn to Sophia’s story has affected my thinking both about Constance’s story and about the structure of the novel as a whole. We have noticed and wondered about Bennett’s choice not to cut back and forth between the sisters. It’s easy to imagine that novel; alternating the point of view is a pretty common approach to a novel with dual protagonists, and it is an obvious and effective way to create both balance and contrast. Several times reading Book 2 I thought that it would be easier to understand the larger point of what’s going on with Constance if her life in the Five Towns were being regularly juxtaposed against Sophia’s life away from there.

But that’s not what Bennett has done, and now that we have left Constance behind for a while I think the effects (and thus perhaps the logic) of his strategy seem a bit clearer to me. We have travelled with Constance through several phases of her life: we have left her youth far behind and gone through marriage, motherhood, widowhood, and into middle age. Early decisions have had their results, many of them ultimately disappointing. We haven’t seen her whole life yet, but at this point I think we are very conscious that there’s probably not much of it left, and that what remains is probably not going to be very exciting. Of course, I may be wrong about this! But Bennett’s Preface sets up these low expectation, sets us up to feel the pathos of Constance’s condition: “there is an extreme pathos,” he says,

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. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout aging woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.

That’s what we’ve now been through with Constance: a tally of the “infinitesimal changes” that have turned the young girl into the aging woman.

For me, this made turning back time to Sophia’s youth feel very different than it might have if we hadn’t already seen how things were turning out for her sister. For a while I had the weird sense that she had been frozen in time while her sister grew older and was just now coming out, as if from under a spell. Her freshness, her baby face which is so remarked, her innocence, her ignorance: these all seemed suddenly both precious and fragile. I felt some impatience with her stupid choices, of course. Gerald, as Dorian notes, is obviously a bounder of the first order! He’s a crude version of Wickham; hasn’t Sophia read her Jane Austen? How could she possibly fall for him, for his lies and blandishments, “the classic device of the seducer”? But I also felt hope for her because, having followed Constance’s uninspiring path already, I wanted a different story for Sophia and at least she had the boldness to get away. I don’t think I would have had quite the same reactions if Sophia’s story had unfolded in tandem with her sister’s. Maybe Bennett knows what he’s doing after all! 😄

Some things I was particularly struck by in these chapters:

Sophia showed more strength of character than I expected – not all the time, but at least some of the time. I respected her determination not to just turn around and go back to the Five Towns when she thinks Gerald will not marry her after all; unlike Lydia she at least had the wherewithal to refuse to play along when he tried to lure her further away without marriage; and she becomes (albeit belatedly) very clear eyed about Gerald, who is, as she discovers, “an imbecile.”

One way we know we aren’t in Austen’s world is the degree of sexual frankness here.  Constance’s married experience is treated a bit more indirectly, but we are told explicitly that Sophia is “no longer a virgin”; there’s also the intimate description of her waking Gerald up by leaning her “nude bosom” over him (“this method of being brought back to consciousness did not displease him”). I wonder why these details are so much more specific than Constance’s musing on the wonder of having taken over her parents’ marriage bed: both sexual relationships are married ones, but maybe he wants us to see Sophia and Gerald’s as still somewhat improper and so highlights its erotic (if that’s the right word?) aspects.

Speaking of awakenings after marriage, this passage is really reminiscent of Dorothea’s honeymoon in Rome in Chapter XX of Middlemarch:

Sophia, thrust suddenly into a strange civilization perfectly frank in its sensuality and its sensuousness, under the guidance of a young man to whom her half-formed intelligence was a most diverting toy—Sophia felt mysteriously uncomfortable, disturbed by sinister, flitting phantoms of ideas which she only dimly apprehended.

Here’s an excerpt of that section of Middlemarch:

The weight of unintelligible Rome might lie easily on bright nymphs to whom it formed a background for the brilliant picnic of Anglo-foreign society; but Dorothea had no such defence against deep impressions . . . all this vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation, at first jarred her as with an electric shock, and then urged themselves on her with that ache belonging to a glut of confused ideas which check the flow of emotion. Forms both pale and glowing took possession of her young sense, and fixed themselves in her memory even when she was not thinking of them, preparing strange associations which remained through her after-years. Our moods are apt to bring with them images which succeed each other like the magic-lantern pictures of a doze; and in certain states of dull forlornness Dorothea all her life continued to see the vastness of St. Peter’s, the huge bronze canopy, the excited intention in the attitudes and garments of the prophets and evangelists in the mosaics above, and the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina.

Maybe it was not a good idea to juxtapose the two quotations: there’s not a single moment in The Old Wives’ Tale so far that bears comparison with Eliot’s brilliant set piece, culminating in that unforgettable image! But both writers are interested in the shock of exposure to a world in which experiences and feelings that were forbidden to their provincial heroines are given full rein.

And that brings us to the execution. Once again, Bennett surprised me. I knew in a general way that this scene was coming, but I didn’t know how or why we would get there. I did not expect it to be so voluntary: maybe they’ll happen across the guillotine on the street and be unable to get away, I thought. But they go looking for it, or Gerald (a.k.a. “the amateur of severed heads”) does. Though his prurience was creepy (I enjoyed the narrator’s jabs at him—”the great ambition of Gerald’s life was at last satisfied”), I didn’t think it was shown as making him monstrous: since he’s “an imbecile,” he doesn’t really understand what he’s so eagerly pursuing, and he gets his come-uppance when he’s sickened and devastated by what he actually sees. The more significant aspect of this whole episode is the blood lust in the crowd:

She dozed, under the sheets, and was awakened by a tremendous shrieking, growling, and yelling: a phenomenon of human bestiality that far surpassed Sophia’s narrow experiences . . . the mad fury of that crowd, balked at the inlets to the square, thrilled and intimidated her. It sounded as if they would be capable of tearing the very horses to pieces.

Mob scenes like this one have a long pedigree in 19th-century novels including A Tale of Two Cities and North and South, and most spectacularly in Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution. I was interested in where Bennett positioned Sophia, both literally—sheltering from the worst of “this obscene spectacle” inside the hotel—and also morally, distancing herself from “this strange, incomprehensible town, foreign and inimical to her.”

I don’t know where Sophia’s going next, but I’m glad she’s got some of Gerald’s money secreted away. Sure, it was a bit dishonest, the way she got it, but I figure he owes her. She’s still young enough—and, I think, smart and spirited enough—to do better, not just romantically but in general. The shadow of Constance’s dull aging looms over this hope, though.

A small question: What’s the regional pronunciation of Sophia’s name – So-FEE-ya or So-FI -ya?


16 thoughts on ““This Rash, Mad Sophia”: More of The Old Wives’ Tale

  1. Carol Gorton July 9, 2021 / 9:57 am

    In the Potteries they say So-Fi-ya. Thanks again Rohan for your observations.


    • Rohan Maitzen July 9, 2021 / 10:14 am

      Thank you! I’d been wondering.


    • Barbara Phillips July 13, 2021 / 6:45 am

      I think it was So-fi-ya at that period of time – my father had an aunt Maria which is now pronounced Mar-eeah, but to the family it was Mar-eyeah. Her dates were 1874 to 1945.


  2. Carolyn Ruane July 9, 2021 / 12:16 pm

    Sophia is under Gerald’s spell as ” his smile was a miracle continually renewed …….it never failed to bewitch her. She wanted to marry England so Gerald buy’s tickets to Paris so they can marry at the English Consul. She gets her way and gets married in London; then goes to Paris.

    Great comments by Bennett ” She looked pitiably young, virgin, raw, unsophisticated: helpless in the midst of dreadful dangers”. Probably so as she came from a drapers shop. We also have ” her head was full of a blank astonishment at being mistaken for a simpleton.”

    Later on she does show more worldly knowledge.

    Both are possessed by a devil that she should have Paris clothes. Sophia is shocked by the prices so has all day dresses; rather one for day and one for evening. This is shrewd.

    Sophia is frightened by Parisiennes “they appeared so corrupt and so proud of their corruption”. Ladies applied power to faces as if touching your hair. Obviously not something she has seen before.

    When Gerald ordered “Moselle” she did not know what this was but it had to be better than champagne. It is dry when you first have it; some get used to that and like it. But some may have to impress others; perhaps!

    When Gerald argues with a man at a restaurant and goes outside to settle; he asks Sophia to stay and wait for him. She does not she permits another man to take her to her hotel room. Gerald does back to the restaurant and then the hotel room. Impatience caused her not to wait.

    Next morning she realises she was a simpleton and how much money Gerald is spending on her and thinks “Ought not a married woman be capable of waiting an hour in a restaurant for her lawfully married husband without looking a ninny”.

    It is interesting contrasting descriptions of shabby and well dressed people. The words used evolve a better understanding.

    When waiting for the guillotine to be constructed I am amused by “mysterious groans of torture, broken by a giggle” that Sophia hears in her hotel room.

    The description for the execution how the steel blade was a cynosure; without it no execution.

    Waiting for the execution the contrast of describing the first rays of sunshine coming out and the hoards of people is beautiful during horror.

    The priest waling backwards is clever as it indicates the man to be executed does not see the guillotine in advance. She falls to the floor so she does not see justice being done.

    It is interesting that both Sophia’s and Constance’s husbands see justice but we view the prisoner’s differently.

    I love how Sophia finds money in an envelope and sews it in a skirt so she has money. Will this be needed later on?

    Sophia and Constance were neither happy all the time; some may say ” you should be happy with your lot”? Or do we all want more than we have?

    What happens next … read more and we will find out.

    Still enjoying the contrasts.


  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) July 9, 2021 / 12:21 pm

    Ah ha, a genuine piece of complex ironic Victorian intertextual work!

    Walter Pater, in “Denys L’Auxerrois,” more or less called Auxerre the most beautiful town in France, a plausible opinion. His story also features an execution, and a mob worked up with blood lust.

    “Frenzy seemed to reign in Auxerre.” So says Bennett, at the Auxerre train station, but the line describes Pater’s story, too.


    • Rohan Maitzen July 9, 2021 / 12:59 pm

      Interesting! So what intertextual work do you think this allusion is doing? Or is it just a kind of call-out to Pater?


    • Amateur Reader (Tom) July 9, 2021 / 2:09 pm

      “Denys L’Auxerrois” was bizarrely influential with Edwardian Paterians, who dropped in fauns and satyrs and the Great God Pan wherever they could, and I suspect the more materialist, not at all Paterian Bennett of critiquing his contemporaries search for beauty though mythical sex and violence. Per Sophia, the execution and everything attached to it – the hotel, the food, the French – is merely horrible.

      Bennett is having some fun de-romanticizing France, making “the prettiest town in France” (that’s the correct quote – I looked it up this time) ugly and at best mere tourism.

      De-romanticizing France inevitably creates a differently romanticized France, but that is a separate issue.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Rebecca July 11, 2021 / 3:22 pm

    It’s hard to comment on this section because it ended with the execution: on the one hand, I’m horrified, and on the other hand, I stayed up too late finishing that section.

    Other thoughts: are there any male characters that won’t irritate me in the second half of the book? Gerald is a problem, and Cyril is so selfish (so far). Finally, thanks to you and Dorian for organizing this group read. I’ve enjoyed the posts, discussion, and photos people have shared.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rohan Maitzen July 11, 2021 / 5:12 pm

      I’ve been wondering that about the male characters too. Will Cyril age well? It doesn’t seem that likely. Will Gerald smarten up? that seems unlikely too!


  5. Carolyn Ruane July 12, 2021 / 3:37 am

    I had not thought that Bennett was De-romanticizing France. I think you are correct.

    After all nothing really beats the Five Towns and Staffordshire oatcakes with bacon and cheese. But perhaps bacon is too expensive. I joke on the oatcakes. Today most people would say they are the best.

    The male characters are second best. Bennett does not get enough credit for how his female characters develop and the males are left behind.


    • Rohan Maitzen July 12, 2021 / 8:56 am

      I would love a recipe for those oatcakes! They are traditional around here too, because of Nova Scotia’s Scottish connections.


      • Carolyn Ruane July 12, 2021 / 9:41 am

        The Scottish Oatcake is a thick cracker for cheese et al. The Staffordshire oatcake is like a pancake made of oats and has a diameter of 20cm. We have them made fresh each morning at local oatcake shops. They on the griddle warm them so cheese melts and you add cooked bacon. Locally the debate is whether you add brown or red sauce. I prefer brown. You can do this at home. Not many people make their own oatcakes; each shop has it own recipe.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Rohan Maitzen July 12, 2021 / 11:34 am

          Ah! They seem more like what we call pancakes than the biscuit-like variety we see here. That sounds delicious!


  6. lynnblin8356 July 15, 2021 / 3:05 pm

    I agree, Rohan, that these three chapters are the most exciting. So exciting, in fact that I hardly took any notes! The portrait of Gerald the bounder, as so adequately and astutely named by Dorian confirms all our expectations since our first encounter, sinking from the abysmal and heading quickly downwards. Sofia’s pluck and her stalwart sticking to her guns r reveals her to be a much more staunch realist than I would have ever thought her to be. I too loved the fact that she sewed the money into the hem of her frock. Money is a recurring theme with Sofia (the money stolen from Aunt Harriet, her repeated expressions of shock at Gerald’s thoughtless spending. She quickly realizes the extent of her mistake in her choice for a husband, but like all change in the novel it comes hard and fast. In just a few pages from “her little gloved hand […] stretching out towards him like a feeler” when he returns to the hotel, to this practical mind planning for a situation that might very well call for survival tactics! And yes, like Middlemarch’s Dorothea after her honeymoon in Rome, Sophia is changed (thanks for quoting that wonderful passage), but, as you’ve pointed out, it is difficult to draw any further parallels between the ways Bennett handles change and the way Eliot does.
    The Eliot character she reminds me the most of is Gwendolyn Harleth. But Sofia – though a spoiled child seems in this chapter at least more resourceful in taking on her own destiny. So ruthless is she that it seems unlikely she will fall for another imbecile again.

    She had no silly, delicate notions about stealing. She obscurely felt that, in the care of a man like Gerald, she might find herself in the most monstrous, the most impossible dilemmas. Those notes, safe and secret in her skirts, gave her confidence, reassured her against the perils of the future, and endowed her with independence. The act was characteristic of her enterprise and her fundamental prudence. It approached the heroic. And her conscience hotly defended its righteousness.

    I’m definitely not disappointed in Sophia. Again we discover Bennett’s interesting take on gender. Sophia though constantly telling herself she should not watch the execution cannot tear herself away from the scene. Though profoundly shocked, she is far from being in the shoddy state that Gerald is in when he is returned to the hotel by Chirac. If someone is going to wear the pants in this couple, it will surely not be Gerald.

    I noted also a curious parallel made between Gerald and Samuel Povey after their violent fight before their marriage, when they are making up and “she sat up and kissed him fairly: It was so wonderful and startling that he burst openly into tears.” Just like Samuel had done when he was jealous. This reaction is so strange and such a surprise. However, there is no evolution in Scales and Bennett makes it clear that this marriage will be a disaster: “he kept saying to himself, far off in some remote cavern of the brain: I shall have her! I shall have her.” Firmly established as a cad, Sophia, on the other hand seems to be firmly established as a winner: “this fragile slip of the Baines stock, unconsciously drawing upon the accumulated strength of generations of honest living, had put a defeat upon him.”

    In the notes I did take for this reading session there are two points that might be interesting to look into as we go along. I was very interested in what has been said about the de-romanticizing of France. It is for sure that the “tremendous shrieking, growling, and yelling: a phenomenon of human bestiality that far surpassed Sophia’s narrow experiences” is an accurate account of the violence that has gone into the making of our political myths here in France. Even after 50 years in this country, it strikes me still. And as a Canadian it is something that remains foreign to me and something that I have to translate in order to be able to make sense of it. Bennett is translating a culture here as it is seen through the eyes of the British. So it is as much a way of enhancing his portrait of this particular British milieu as it is of portraying the French. Sophia doesn’t speak a word of French. Everything must be translated for her by Gerald, or Chirac or the drunken Englishman. And this drunken Englishman is not translating for Sophia but giving English lessons to his French girlfriend, who obviously understands the French but is learning how to say it in English: “You will take ze ‘ead , sair.”

    The other thing that has struck me is the detail Bennett gives to his description of the interiors- the restaurant, the sordid hotel room etc. I have drawn no conclusions, but I will be continuing to pay attention.
    To Amateur Reader Tom thank you for the mention to Pater- a writer I have never read but has been on my “to read” list for years. It is interesting to read what strikes the different readers. The sharing of it makes this a richer experience for all of us.



  7. Carolyn Ruane July 24, 2021 / 6:56 am

    I am sorry I could not find the link for Frensham’s so my comments are here.

    30 for dinner only only 2 or 3 wore Evening Dress ” did no flatter the lust of the eye ” a fabulous way of looking at it; as if ornate wear was needed. The room description is as if I was walking around it.

    I like how the character (Mathew Peel-Swynnerton) we are to like has superior table manners as if he is a lord. Bennett seeks his roots and advises he was descendant of earthenware manufacturers the compote; desert dish his firm made. Did not cater for cheap markets. My plate turning to check if made in Stoke on Trent is not quiet as good. My neighbour who is a potter advised lift a plate slightly and use a knife as mirror to see the name.

    Sadly we have racism when describing the Jewish gentlemen. This happens in Victorian books.

    Mathew realises who she is when he knew her name was Scales ; obviously Bursley will know on his return. It would be interesting to have known people realising she was doing well in Paris on her own.

    Mr Martin advises good wages and staff treated well. That is good as I assume most would pay less and dictate to staff.

    Sophia considered going back to Bursley but, was ashamed as she had stolen from Aunt Harriet. It would have pleased Constance if she would have gone back.

    Sophia gets paralysis due to worry and overwork and told to rest by a doctor. Constance writes and asks her to come home. She had written the day before due to crying. How sad; perhaps she is lonely!

    Mr Martin offers to buy Frensham’s for syndicate; Sophia sells up. The Pension is on Rue Lord Byron obviously Bennett admires him to have road named after him.

    in the Signal Sophia had sold her lodgings for 5 figures. Constance goes by train to Knype Station and not tram so she does not meet anyone. Her walk to the station is convoluted route so she meets no one.

    The description of Sohia’s dog as “the air of a decked Trollope” is funny. I laughed out loud when I read that!

    the loop line had most stations closed in 1960’s and today there is talk of reopening the stations. Nostalgic articles often talk about this line’

    I find it realistic Sophia thought the smoke was worse as it was due to more bottle kilns and factories all billowing smoke. The air act to clean up air had not come in force as the happened in 1956. Bottle kilns look like their name and are used to fire pottery. Today there are about 50 left . In the heyday there would have been about 250.

    Constance thought Sophia was superior to any Frenchwomen she had met. This is a kind thought.

    Sophia sees the butcher in Wedgwood Street is s disgrace to the ones in Paris.

    Sophia enjoyed being with Constance despite to foulness and provinciality of Bursley. The scale of places is not the same.

    I like the description of Sophia’s umbrella and she has to take it just in case. Perhaps to show off. Bennett is great at descriptions of ordinary items.

    Constance writes to Cyril each week. When Cyril does not write it perturbs her. Cyril said he was coming to Bursly but did not. Sophia sends a telegram and Cyril and he comes. Indicating he listens to her.

    Sophia persuades Constance to go to Buxton and they have fun. Which is great for Constance as her sciatica is not as bad. When Constance wants to go back , Sophia realises she has behaved as Cyril did and she changes and they go home.

    Carolyn Ruane of Arnold Bennett Society.


    • Rohan Maitzen July 24, 2021 / 7:26 am

      As announced on Twitter we have adjusted the schedule to take Dorian’s vacation into account. I’m sorry: I should have also posted the revised dates here! I forget that not everyone is on Twitter.


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