The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

I love the novels of Arnold Bennett, one of the most prolific and enjoyable writers of the early twentieth century. Does anyone read Bennett?  Only five of his books are in print, Clayhanger, Anna of the Five Towns, The Old Wives’ Tale, The Card, and Grand Babylon Hotel.   I try to read a Bennett novel every year: a few years ago I made my way through the Clayhanger trilogy, set in the Five Towns, which are based on the six towns in the Potteries district of Staffordshire, where Bennett grew up; and then Anna of the Five Towns, a novel about the daughter of a miser-factory owner.

But the best by far is The Old Wives’ Tale, published in 1908.  I have now added it to my Favorites of All Time list.  It is reminiscent of  Balzac’s realistic novels, with their interweaving of character studies, the mundane details of life and work, and the panorama of historical events:  in The Old Wives’ Tale, the action is concurrent with the Great Exhibition, the Siege of Paris, the Dreyfus Affair,  and the Federation in the Potteries.  John Wain writes in the  introduction to the Penguin edition: “It is one of the most successful attempts, if not the most successful, to rival in English the achievement of the French realistic novel from Balzac down to Flaubert, Zola, and Maupassant.”

Bennett’s tour de force centers on two sisters, Constance, who inherits the family drapery shop in Bursely (one of the Five Towns), and Sophia, who moves to Paris and first runs a boarding house and then a hotel.  It begins in the 1860s, and follows the lives of the Baines sisters from their teens till death.  Bennett brilliantly divides the book into four different chronological tales, beginning with the sisters’ roots in Book I,  called “Mrs. Baines” (who is their mother); Book II, “Constance,” and Book III, “Sophia,” detail  their work and relationships through middle age;  and Book IV, “What Life Is,” their old age and deaths.

The two sisters are completely unlike:  Constance, the conventional sister, doesn’t mind smoky Bursley, home of pottery factories, and finds it a pleasure to work in the shop.   But restless, pretty Sophia becomes a teacher (which is a step down from trade, in her mother’s eyes), and is successful at the local school until she develops a crush on a flashy traveling salesman, Gerald Scales. Then she foolishly quits her job and goes to work in the shop on the chance of seeing him.  She runs away with him to Paris.  And so the sisters are separated, one in Bursley, one in Paris.  And their worlds could not be more different.

In Book II, Bennett describes Contance’s life in Bursley, which is often monotonous, but with the rewards of marriage and family.  As a young woman, Constance and Mr. Povey (Samuel), the manager, become friends and shyly fall in love.  Samuel’s innovations at the shop seem lower-class to Mrs. Baines:  first he puts up a sign–even Constance thinks that’s going too far–and then, with Constance’s help, organizes a sale (never done before!), and they write out the fancy sale tickets together.  Mrs. Baines objects to their marriage at first, but  yields, mainly because she needs Samuel to manage the shop.  And so Mrs. Baines leaves the house and business to Constance and Samuel.  And how does Constance feel about the routine?  Bennett describes her security beautifully.

Was Constance happy? Of course there was always something on her mind, something that had to be dealt with, either in the shop or in the house, something to employ all the skill and experience which she had acquired. Her life had much in it of laborious tedium–tedium never-ending and monotonous. And both she and Samuel worked consistently hard, rising early, ‘pushing forward,’ as the phrase ran, and going to bed early from sheer fatigue; week after week and month after month as season changed imperceptibly into season. In June and July it would happen to them occasionally to retire before the last silver of dusk was out of the sky. They would lie in bed and talk placidly of their daily affairs. There would be a noise in the street below. “Vaults closing!” Samuel would say, and yawn. “Yes, it’s quite late,” Constance would say. And the Swiss clock would rapidly strike eleven on its coil of resonant wire….

But life takes a strange turn–Samuel’s brother is accused of murdering his wife (it was an accident), and after he is hanged, Samuel’s cold turns into pneumonia, and he dies. Constance loves their son Cyril dearly, but he is out of control after his father’s death, and she finally admits to herself that he is not a good son.

Is Sophia’s life better in Paris? Not at all–her husband Gerald is a rake and a spendthrift, and exposes her to horrors that no Baines woman should live through–and yet she won’t go home.  She sees Gerald’s ghoulish morbidity when he insists on traveling to see the execution of a man. Although Sophia stays in the hotel, hundreds of people sit on roofs or hangout windows of the hotels to see the execution.  Sophia, too, sees everything.  And she understands she has married a coarse man.

There are other parallels between the sisters’ lives. Sophia, too, succeeds in business.  After Gerald leaves her, she  becomes the landlady of a boarding house (formerly run by a prostitute), and later she buys  a hotel. She is busy from dawn to dusk, doing much of the work and cooking herself, and even becomes a bit of a miser.

What a remarkable novel!  Honestly, one of the best I’ve read this year.

Bibliobits: Arnold Bennett’s “Anna of the Five Towns” & Jeanette Watson on Hand-Selling Books

Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns (1902) is  one of those wonderful early twentieth-century novels that carry on the Victorian tradition of telling rip-roaring stories with superb social insights.   Perhaps this classic is not in the canon–It’s hard to keep up with the evaluation of Bennett–but it is one of the best business novels of the twentieth century.  Bennett reminds me slightly of  George Gissing, another writer who chronicles the tension between love and money.  And Bennett’s portrait of the heroine Anna Tellwright, a miser’s daughter who has never handled more money than is needed to do the marketing, is sharply-observed and sympathetic.

In this brilliant novel about religion, money, and love, Bennett interweaves these conflicting elements with the dramatic shaping of scenes:  some disdain his minute descriptions of everything from a maid’s apron to an inventory of furniture in the Tellwrights’ house, but every detail matters and contributes to the drama.

In the opening chapter, we do not immediately meet Anna; instead, Bennett sketches a scene in which the most important characters in her life wait for her outside the Sunday school.  Her younger half-sister, twelve-year-old Agnes, has just burst out of the Sunday school, happy because she has won a book, a Sunday School prize.  And handsome Henry Mynors, a popular businessman who is the morning superintendent of  the Sunday school, teases Agnes about her prize while he waits for Anna.

‘I’m sure you don’t deserve that prize. Let me see if it isn’t too good for you.’ Mynors smiled playfully down upon Agnes Tellwright as he idly turned the leaves of the book which she handed to him. ‘Now, do you deserve it? Tell me honestly.’

She scrutinised those sparkling and vehement black eyes with the fearless calm of infancy. ‘Yes, I do,’ she answered in her high, thin voice, having at length decided within herself that Mr. Mynors was joking.

Most of the main characters are involved with the Methodist Sunday school in one way or another.  Accompanying Mynor is Willie Price, secretary of the men’s Bible class, a bashful young man whose father, the head of the Sunday school,  rents a run-down factory from Anna and Agnes’ father, Ephraim Tellwright–and they are in financial trouble.   And then there is Mrs. Sutton, the cheerful wife of an eminent businessman who runs the sewing society and other charitable groups.

When Anna emerges, she is perfectly poised.   It is the confident Mynors who walks her home, while Willie fades away.  Anna suspects that Mynors is infatuated with her, but she isn’t quite sure, because she has never had a friend, let alone a boyfriend.  Her father is a miser, and she is his housekeeper. They live in poverty, though he is one of the richest men in town.  She is so used to eking out pennies that she only half-realizes her father’s wealth.

On her 21st birthday, her father calls her into his office:  she inherits 50,000 pounds from her mother, who died 20 years ago.  Her father’s idea, of course, is to use her as a puppet for financial transactions.  Ironically, she owns the run-down factory Willie Price and his father rent from them, and since they are behind on the rent, he forces Anna to go collect it.

Appalled by the conditions of the factory, Anna empathizes with the Prices. They simply do not have the money.  I would like to say that Anna rebels and manages the money herself, but that of course would not be like life.  Gradually, with the help of Mrs. Sutton, who includes her in the women’s social circles and invites her on a vacation, and her relationship with Mynor,  she learns about money and manages to break free.  But her way to freedom is not entirely satisfactory…

Really, you’ll have to read it!

IF YOU WERE A BOOKSELLER, WHAT BOOKS WOULD YOU HAND-SELL?  Jeanette Watson, owner of Books & Co in New York from 1977 to 1997 and the author of a memoir, It’s My Party, writes at the Literary Hub about her favorite books to hand-sell during her bookstore days.  Among them is one of my favorites, Easy Travel to Other Planets by Ted Mooney. I thought I was the only person on the planet who had read this.

She writes,

This amazing book is about a female researcher who has a love affair with the dolphin she is studying. The love scenes are amazingly erotic and made me long for my own dolphin! Would that be considered adultery? Maybe married people could do this without guilt? We sold many copies of this too.

Watson also inspires me to want to read Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters.  She writes,

My customers also had an influence on my reading. I remember John Guare telling me to read The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki. “It’s the Gone With the Wind of Japanese literature,” he said: a line I borrowed when I suggested the fabulous book to others.

A fabulous list!