“Everything came to that”: Finishing The Old Wives’ Tale

penguin-bennettWhat affected her was that he had once been young, and that he had grown old, and was now dead. That was all. Youth and vigour had come to that. Youth and vigour always came to that. Everything came to that.

The final volume of The Old Wives’ Tale is called “What Life Is.” Its final two chapters are called “The End of Sophia” and “The End of Constance.” In other words, what life is, is death.

If I say that this predictable – because inevitable – end, both to the novel and to Constance and Sophia, made sense of the rest of the novel for me, I might be overstating the case somewhat, but that’s definitely some of what I felt when I turned the last page. It’s not that nothing that happens to them along the way matters (to them, or thematically) but that the whole purpose of the novel (as clearly stated by Bennett himself in his Preface) is to get us through their lives, and especially through the transformation from youth to age. Recall:

there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing 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 ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.

This novel was never going to be about epiphanies, or even about growth: it is not a dual Bildungsroman. Despite the long but temporary divergence in their paths, Constance and Sophia don’t change much, or learn much, or even do much. I think this accounts for some of my confusion as I read the middle sections. Unlike most of the fictional heroines I’m familiar with (Anne Elliot, Maggie Tulliver, Margaret Hale, Jane Eyre, or Rhoda Nunn, for example) they weren’t even trying to do much. Even Tess Durbeyfield has a vision of her future, and when it’s demolished, she really struggles to reshape it anew. Constance and Sophia, in contrast, just keep on living. There are decisions, incidents, developments – but these have the scattershot quality of reality, rather than the direction and unity of fiction.

BennettThis is not a condemnation of The Old Wives’ Tale, though. One of the challenges for me all along has been figuring out what kind of book it is, so that I could figure out what I was reading it for, or, how to read it well. There are lots of specific aspects of it that I think would reward sustained analysis – especially the relationship between the sisters’ “tale” and the story the novel tells of the Five Towns. But for me anyway, what the final chapters really did was complete the pattern I hadn’t quite been able to make out. It is just the pattern of life, with its beginning, middle, and end. That’s at once not much (for a novel) and everything (for all of us). The result is at once weirdly dull and dissatisfying (is that really all?!) and immeasurably poignant (yes – yes, it is all).

The closest we get to an epiphany is Sophia’s meditation by the deathbed of Gerald Scales. I loved the way Bennett brought her and us to this moment of (mis)recognition. Sophia is so wonderfully shocked that he is old, which is both about the way he has, in her memory, been preserved in the past and about her own (our own?) difficulty understanding – or maybe it’s believing in – her own aging. How can it be, and what does it mean, that no matter what else happens, death is always going to be the end of our stories? This is “the riddle of life” Sophia confronts as she looks at Gerald’s corpse:

He and she had once loved and burned and quarrelled in the glittering and scornful pride of youth. But time had worn them out. “Yet a little while,” she thought, ” and I shall be lying on a bed like that! And what shall I have lived for? What is the meaning of it?” The riddle of life itself was killing her, and she seemed to drown in a sea of inexpressible sorrow.

There really isn’t anywhere else for her to go after this: her literal death felt like a bit of an afterthought, a more important event for Constance than for Sophia herself.

whistlerAnd then it’s Constance’s turn. There’s an extra level of pathos in her being left alone to play out her last act. Like all the death scenes in the novel, hers is blunt, unsentimental, clinical (“It was not rheumatism but a supervening pericarditis that in a few days killed her”). Again, there are lots of specifics we could discuss: of course Cyril wasn’t there, and his career as a “dilettante” is its own form of stasis – but he did do a good job on Sophia’s funeral! and those of you hailing Fossette as the greatest character are of course being hyperbolic (or maybe I think so because I’m not much for dogs) and yet it’s true that she is more charismatic, ultimately, than either of the sisters! But at this point in my thinking about the novel it’s big picture stuff that’s preoccupying me, and so the passage that resonated most with me as I reached the novel’s conclusion was this one:

Old people said to one another: “Have you heard that Mrs. Povey is dead? Eh, dear me! There’ll be no one left soon.” These old people were bad prophets. Her friends genuinely regretted her, and forgot the tediousness of her sciatica. They tried, in their sympathetic grief, to picture to themselves all that she had been through in her life. Possibly they imagined that they succeeded in this imaginative attempt. But they did not succeed. No one but Constance could realize all that Constance had been through, and all that life had meant to her.

First of all, “her friends genuinely regretted her” is not a bad epitaph: I think I’d be happy with it! But the other thing is that it’s not just Constance who knows what she went through and what her life meant to her. It’s also us: we were there. We know. That attention, that knowledge, this novel, is Bennett’s tribute to “the sort of woman who would pass unnoticed in a crowd.”

I admit I finished The Old Wives’ Tale unconvinced that it is a great novel, though it has some great moments. Is it particularly well written, for instance? (I know, I know: how to define or measure that quality? I think I know it when I encounter it, but that’s hardly a reliable test.) Does it go very deep? I’m really glad I read it, though. I know that I am going to keep thinking about it. v-woolf

What about you? How did the ending affect your ideas about what went before? Did you finish the novel with new (or renewed) appreciation for Bennett as a novelist? Do we want to have a go at Woolf’s complaint that he is a “materialist” – or do we want to leave her out of this?

7 thoughts on ““Everything came to that”: Finishing The Old Wives’ Tale

  1. banff1972 August 6, 2021 / 2:16 pm

    Hmm great novel, not sure. I found the end moving, though, for the reasons you describe so ably here. (I don’t think Bennett’s prose is up to much, but that’s ok.)

    The Woolf criticism baffles me, I must say. She is obviously doing something else–she is far more interested in perception than Bennett, which means her writing is more self-reflexive than his–but I wish she’d just been okay with saying that. I guess she had to fight for a way to make herself legible to herself and others.

    What do you make of the title? I am puzzled!

  2. Carolyn Ruane August 7, 2021 / 1:08 pm

    I feel said with the last to chapter names as it indicates both ladies depart.

    End of Sopia

    I assummed Constance would go first due to her ill health but it was not so.

    Constance could not give a reason to stay but would not budge from her home. Sophia wanted to modernise; would not happen.

    Discussion on Federation was interesting because today Hanley which Hanbridge is based on has more money spent on it today.

    Telegram Gerald is gravely I’ll in Manchester; not seen him for 36 years. His uncle the pawnbroker took him. He died before the telegram was sent . Sophia is upset a goes to see him. He was Pitiably old”. Great words not used much today. Description of Gerald
    is looking at a painting; wonderfully done . Bennett is renowned for this quality.

    Sophia states her life was monstrous and wants to die. Gerald’s ’s clothes seen better days; boots of a tramp. He had come from Liverpool and had probably
    walked in the rain as clothes still damp .

    Interesting how the chemist will serve doctor after hours. I love he took a course with St John’s Ambulance how to carry Sophia up to bed done on his own. She dies dies of a broken heart perhaps a s she go with no other man.

    Money all left to Cyril ; she is parsimonious- careful with money. Cyril designed a tomb a gravestone not befitting his aunt.

    End of Constance

    Constance is now mistress of her own house again.

    Lily she was capable, with a touch of honest , simple stupidity. Great quote of understanding a person’s personality.

    Why did Constance put a framed photo of a servant with family photos? I am not sure what point she is making.

    Lily advises Constance cheats at patience!

    Hanbridge had the cream of Bursley trade due to the tram.

    Mrs Critchlow attempts suicide she had been depressed for a few months. She told a servant she had been guilty of sexual irregularity with Samuel her
    late employer. Constance will despair if she knew. She tried to stab herself with scissors. Taken to the asylum.
    Constance advised she would give up her house due to Midland a shop too cheapjack. They bought shop to get her out. Her pride was injured.

    I love the name Duck Bank. In Stoke on Trent duck is a term of endearment; in south thanks mate we use ta duck.

    Federation this time. Poll is near; schools closed. Cover using Bursley brass band and children’s song on wagonettes to drum up support. Bursley
    identity will be lost.

    Constance has rheumatism and nervous agitation . Going to town hill caught a chill as she got her feet damp.

    Interesting turn of phrase tart but not sour cheerfulness was her dispersion. She died of pericarditis.

    Cyril comes 3 days after the funeral. Mr chritchlow came to funeral uninvited; he is senile and goes to funerals with gusto to see off friends one by one. He
    says it is a shame she did not know federation is to happen after all that would have worritted her. The vote would not stop it.

    I have really enjoyed this and seeing people comments. Thank you.

    Carolyn

    • Rohan Maitzen August 8, 2021 / 8:29 am

      Thank you for sharing your observations, Carolyn! I have enjoyed this too: it has encouraged me to read some of Bennett’s other novels, too, probably starting with Riceyman Steps, which sounds right up my alley.

  3. Carolyn Ruane August 8, 2021 / 8:55 am

    That is a good book ; I believe more enthralling. It is the the tale of a book seller so he is an interesting character, Again description are great, I think you will like it.

  4. sparrowpost August 10, 2021 / 5:56 pm

    Like you, I was struck by how the novel follows the pattern of life: “The result is at once weirdly dull and dissatisfying (is that really all?!) and immeasurably poignant (yes – yes, it is all).” Beautifully put, Rohan. I don’t think the novel went very deep nor do I think Bennett meant it to, and I wonder if this what maddened Woolf (aside from Bennett’s critique on her work). I came across her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” It’s written a few years after Modern Fiction, and it’s clear she’s taken the time to ruminate and reflect what she means by materialism and why the Edwardian style (Bennett, Galsworthy, and Wells) of writing doesn’t work for the current Modern writers. Here’s a little quote, “The Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use. They have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better worth living in.”
    The line “they have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things” struck me in particular. All the pleasant homey and material details that Bennett fills his book with are very comforting to read about but throughout, I felt something was missing, maybe a deeper interiority to the characters or something like spirituality.
    Despite that, it was an enjoyable read and I appreciate you and Dorian hosting a discussion about on your blogs. I would have never heard of this book otherwise and I’m glad I did.

    • Rohan Maitzen August 11, 2021 / 7:55 am

      I’m glad I read it too and I really appreciated everyone’s contributions to the discussion along the way!

      I really tried to read the novel without Woolf’s commentary in either of those essays in mind, but like you I ended the novel feeling something was missing. I’ve been working on Winifred Holtby’s book about Woolf from 1931 and something she emphasizes about Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse is their “metaphysical unity,” a way in which their form is completely congruent with their ideas. That sense of some underlying meaning to it all is what I struggled to reach with The Old Wives’ Tale, but I do like the “fabric of things” in it. Bennett is also writing a “social” novel in a way that Woolf just didn’t want to: as always when one novelist criticizes other novelists, it’s clear that what she’s really doing (like a typical questioner at an academic conference!) is complaining that he didn’t write *her* book. 🙂

  5. lynnblin8356 August 12, 2021 / 4:18 am

    Rohan, thank-you for this. When I finished my reading of the novel I was disappointed – in fact I was disappointed about the whole chapter on Sophia. But when I examine why I was so disappointed, it’s because she has been such a spectacular character. And I shall revise what I said about her not changing, because of course she has. From the second she sews that money into the hem of her skirt, it is already a Sophia who has lost all innocence. Surely one of the best businesswomen ever created! But it is Sophia the tragic hero. And this I clearly announced.

    “Her eyes were the eyes of one who has lost her illusions too violently and too completely. Her gaze coldly comprehending, implied familiarity with the abjectness of human nature. Gerald had begun and finished her education. He had not ruined her as a bad professor may ruin a fine voice, because her moral force immeasurably exceeded his, he had unwittingly produced a masterpiece but it was a tragic masterpiece.”

    The Paris chapters are stupendous. Sophia unflaggingly making a life for herself, her moral force intact till the end, but irremediably scarred by her four-year marriage with Gerald, which has made any intimacy impossible. But Sophia has changed in other ways. When she arrives in Bursley with the ridiculous Fossette (French for ‘dimple’), she is almost the caricature of a French woman. As both you and Dorian have pointed out. Bennett could take Sophia out of Bursely, but he couldn’t take the Bursely out of Sophia. But conversely, he couldn’t take the Paris out of Sophia either:

    “Seen at a distance, she might have passed for a woman of thirty, even for a girl, but seen across a narrow railway carriage, she was a woman of whom suffering had aged. Yet obviously her spirit was unbroken. Hear her tell a doubtful porter that of course she would take Fossette into the carriage! See her shut the carriage door with the expressed intention of keeping other people out. She was accustomed to command. At the same time her face had almost a set smile, as though she had said to herself: “I will die smiling”.

    “Custom and Command” or “Command and Servitude” could be another theme of discussion in this novel.

    To sum up, this invitation to read Bennett in a group, so masterfully guided by you and Dorian has made “The Old Wives’ Tale” my most satisfying read of the summer so far. In an interview with CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel, Katzuo Ishiguro spoke about how his first vocation in life was to become a songwriter. He went on to say something to the effect that for him a good novel is like a good song. It will stay in your mind like a catchy tune that you can’t help yourself from humming all day. There are many parts of “The Old Wives Tale” that keep cropping up in my mind. I think my favourite is the meal scene in Frensham’s :

    “And down the room filling it, ran the great white table, bordered with bowed heads and the back of chairs. There were over thirty people at the table and the peculiarly retrained noisiness of their knives and forks on their plates proved that they were a discreet and a correct people. Their clothes – bodices, blouses and jackets – did not flatter the lust to the eye. Only two or three were in evening dress. They spoke little and generally in a timorous tone, as though silence had been enjoined. Somebody would half whisper a remark, and then his neighbour, absently fingering her bread and lifting gaze from her plate into vacancy, would conscientiously weigh the remark and half whisper in reply: “I dare say”. But a few spoke loudly and volubly, and were regarded by the rest, who envied them as underbred.”

    This portrait of the British on holiday in Paris, staying at a ‘pension’ with a British name, and vacationing with other Brits is a masterpiece in that it is also a portrait of what a meal- what food – would be for a French person. (I would have copied this whole section, but my Kobo doesn’t allow Copy and Paste.) It would be unthinkable for a group of French people to be sitting around a dinner table and not be talking about FOOD! I come from French-Canadian stock and food was always important to my mother. But nothing could prepare me for the meals at my husband’s grandmother’s house. Or even meals at the café in the little village near Compiegne where I began my life in France in 1970!
    There is much more to be said about this novel. I planned to do so, but my twin grandsons-aged 9 came to us from camp with Covid last week. Since then two more of the ten family members vacationing with us have also come down with it. They are all vaccinated so the cases are mild. They are all tucked away in a little house we have at the bottom of our garden. And do you know what? True to French form, none of them have lost their appetite. This means two three course meals a day for 10 people. Vive la France! Vive la république!

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