What 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.
This 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.
And 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.
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?