I’ve just finished reading this book by Arnold Bennett and can really recommend it to anyone who wants a serious, but readable, book. Although it’s very long (615 pages in the Penguin Classics edition), the style is smooth and the material interesting, so I didn’t find it difficult or heavy.
Bennett was an admirer of the French realistic novelists like Balzac and Flaubert and set out to write something similar in English. I can’t say how true to his models this book is as I’ve never any of them, but I agree with the reviewers of the time (1908) who apparently hailed The Old Wives’ Tale as a masterpiece.
It is about two sisters, born in a pottery town in Staffordshire in the mid-nineteenth century. The story follows them from their mid-teens to their deaths some fifty years later. Although there are a few scenes of high drama – a murder, a public execution and quite a number of less outrageous deaths – this is a look at ‘real life’ so the sisters live day to day, year to year in a ‘normal’ world, and much of the action is subtle and understated.
Bennett wanted to show that people become what they are through their experiences in life. The paths of the sisters diverge: the eldest stays at home, works in her father’s shop and marries his chief assistant; the youngest elopes to Paris, is abandoned by her husband and sets herself up as the owner of a pension. When they are reunited years later, they have each developed, not only according to their initial characters, but also because of their histories.
By following the sisters separately for at least half the book it can at times seem like two stories. But the structure is also part of its originality.
For me, one of the most positive things about the novel is that the main characters are capable career women. The eldest balances motherhood and work in a way a 21st century woman would recognise, and the youngest becomes wealthy through her own hard work.
Another feature I liked is that the women age realistically. Because they are different, the two of them move differently from lively teenager to responsible working woman to slightly grumpy old lady. But in some ways each of them is a universal ageing woman.
I also liked the effect on the women of the background of social and political changes they experienced. This kind of study is really only possible when the story covers a long period.
I did feel that the relationship between the sisters could have been developed a bit more, but I think the author was more focussed on the effect of time and personal history on individuals than on relationships.
Bennett chose a large canvas to work and fills it splendidly: each change is logical, each mood true, and the ends of the two lives we have followed are natural.