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.
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?