“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?

#OldWivesTale21 Update

I realize belatedly that I should have posted about this here before rather than assuming a Twitter update was enough. Dorian is on vacation (check out his Twitter feed for pictures!) and so we’ve adjusted our reading and posting schedule so that he doesn’t have to worry about any of it until he gets back. Here’s the revised plan:

Revised Bennett Schedule

As you can see, it brings our read-along project to a close just a bit later than originally planned. We’re excited to pick up again with our discussion – and to find out how the novel ends!

“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?


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! 

Everyday Crockery: Beginning The Old Wives’ Tale

ModernLibraryYou cannot drink tea out of a teacup without the aid of the Five Towns; … you cannot eat a meal in decency without the aid of the Five Towns … All the everyday crockery used in the kingdom is made in the Five Towns—all, and much besides.

I’m just four chapters into The Old Wives’ Tale and I already feel that I owe Arnold Bennett an apology. I never should have taken someone else’s word about himnot even (maybe, especially not) Virginia Woolf’s. My aim, as I started reading The Old Wives’ Tale for the first, time, was precisely not to let Woolf set the rules of engagement: Dorian and I said we wanted to read Bennett on his own terms, and so I tried to put Woolf’s critique out of my mind and just read. (I did browse the commentaries on Bennett included in my Modern Library edition from Rebecca West, W. Somerset Maugham, H. G. Wells, Henry James, and J. B. Priestley: as you’d expect, there are lots of tempting morsels of opinion in them, but I’m going to leave them alone too for now.) Still, I’ve read “Modern Fiction” and “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” often enough that I couldn’t help but bring low expectations with me: “Life escapes,” she says, magisterially, “and perhaps without life nothing else is worth while.”

Is The Old Wives’ Tale lifeless? I think it’s too soon to say, though I would readily describe the chapters I’ve read so far as lively. Is Bennett a “materialist,” as Woolf also declares? Sure, OK, that seems fair so far; I can’t tell yet if that is such a bad thing. It’s what you do with your materials that matters, right? But I don’t want to spend this post (or this read-along) parsing or arguing with Woolf anyway. What I can say is that nothing I vaguely knew or thought I knew about Bennett prepared me for the things that have so far delighted me about this novel, which is much stranger and funnier and edgier than I expected.

330px-Arnold_Bennett's_PhotographExhibit A here, for me, is the tooth pulling. The whole story of Mr. Povey’s toothache and his (highly relatable!) anxiety about going to the dentist is brilliant. “He seemed to be trying ineffectually to flee from his tooth as a murderer tries to flee from his conscience”: that’s a great line, capturing both the man and the mood perfectly. I loved Constance and Sophia’s trepidation as they prepare the laudanum (“Constance took the bottle as she might have taken a loaded revolver … Must this fearsome stuff, whose very name was a name of fear, be introduced in spite of printed warnings into Mr. Povey’s mouth? The responsibility was terrifying”)and then the rise in both their courage and their impudence as they feel their power over their “patient.” But I did not expect the climax of this scene to be Sophia going at the unconscious Mr. Povey with a pair of pliers (“This was the crown of Sophia’s career as a perpetrator of the unutterable”); I didn’t anticipate her getting the wrong tooth after all, or her wanting to keep the tooth (eww?)—or its becoming the occasion for a terrible breach between the sisters, when Constance violates the sacrosanct privacy of Sophia’s work-box to seize “the fragment of Mr. Povey” and throw it out the window. The whole sequence is hilarious and graphic (that long description of the loose tooth in “the singular landscape” of Mr. Povey’s open mouth!) and, well, strange, though I can’t quite put my finger on why I find it so. Is it just me?

penguin-bennettI suppose its main function is to help establish the characters of the two sisters, who certainly reveal themselves as they squabble over the tooth: “the beauty of Sophia, the angelic tenderness of Constance, and the youthful, naïve, innocent charm of both of them, were transformed into something sinister and cruel.” A lot of these four first chapters is about setting up the contrast between them, which I know becomes a major structuring principle of the novel as it goes on. Chapter 4 makes this point really clearly, as it looks at how they have “grown up”: “The sisters were sharply differentiated,” the narrator remarks, in case we couldn’t tell. Constance’s name anticipates her more homely path, while Sophia’s hints at her “yearning for an existence more romantic than this” (as the narrator says about Mrs. Baines’s unexpected kinship with her defiant daughter). I’m enjoying both sisters equally so far: it doesn’t seem as if Bennett is setting them up as antagonists, despite their differences. When Sophia showed her first signs of rebellion, I wondered if she was an Edwardian cousin of Jane Eyre or Maggie Tulliver—but (again, so far) I don’t think so. Her restlessness seems more about her personality than about her circumstances: do you agree? (I loved Mrs. Baines’s attempt to treat Sophia’s “obstinacy and yearning” with castor oil.) Similarly, Constance’s quieter conduct doesn’t (so far) seem like mindless conformity, or capitulation to family or societal pressures: it’s just who she is.

BennettTwo other features of these early chapters that contributed to my sense of the novel’s strangeness, and then I’ll close, because the point of this exercise is to start a conversation, not try to “cover” everything! First, the elephant. I did not expect an elephant at all, much less a thumbnail version of “Shooting an Elephant.” What’s up with the poor elephant, “whitewashed” and shot by “six men of the Rifle Corps”? The thing about a detail like this is that while you can always explain it away as a plot devicein this case a spectacle to get people out of the house and thus leave Sophia there to encounter Mr. Scales and neglect her father for that fatal intervalthat doesn’t solve the problem of why the author used this specific plot device. It could have been anything: a fire, a runaway horse, a tightrope walker, a live elephant!

Second, there’s Mr. Baines’s death, which (like Mr. Povey’s pulled tooth) I found shocking, both because it is so graphically awful and because, in spite of that, it is also weirdly, uncomfortably, comicalor, again, is that just me? I mean, there’s nothing at all funny about the poor man’s condition, much less his actual death, but then we get this:

After having been unceasingly watched for fourteen years, he had, with an invalid’s natural perverseness, taken advantage of Sophia’s brief dereliction to expire. Say what you will, amid Sophia’s horror, and her terrible grief and shame, she had visitings of the idea: he did it on purpose!

“John Baines had belonged to the past,” comments the narrator, and his funeral puts that past, characterized as “mid-Victorian England,” also into the novel’s past. I’m keen to see where Constance and Sophia go next. To be honest, I was worried that I might find the novel dullthat it would be a mass of details, a lifeless inventory of “everyday crockery”but instead I had to discipline myself to stop reading at the end of Chapter 4.

So, what do the rest of you think of The Old Wives’ Tale so far? What strikes you as significant, provoking, lively, or lifeless? There’s a lot in these chapters that I haven’t mentioned, maybe including the aspects you thought were the most interesting! Comments, questions, or favorite quotations welcome, either here or on Twitter, where our hashtag for the read-along is #OldWivesTale21. I don’t know if we are going to try to avoid “spoilers,” exactly, but those of you who have read the whole novel already might just be patient with us newcomers as we move through it on our schedule.

Tune in next week chez Dorian for Chapters 5-7!