Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Old Wives' Tale

Reasons I thought I was going to dislike Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale:

  1. It's called The Old Wives' Tale. Not a very exciting title. Now Lawrence - he knows how to mask a boring book with an exciting title.
  2. The author's name is Arnold Bennett. Seems like he would be a model of Edwardian snoozefests.
  3. Mr. Bennett is known to not have had any artistic ambitions in writing. He wrote for the money, and because he knew he could do better than others. ("Am I to sit still and see other fellows pocketing two guineas apiece for stories which I can do better myself? Not me. If anyone imagines my sole aim is art for art's sake, they are cruelly deceived.") Pshaw!
  4. The novel begins by describing the Five Towns, St. Luke's Square, Bursley, etc. English village life. I'm sensing Lawrence here, or Wessex (even though I like Hardy), and I'm getting bored.
  5. And speaking of Lawrence...Bennett's novel centers around two daughters of a shopkeeper. One is very conventional, the other a sprite. Bringing back memories of The Rainbow. Am I asleep here yet?

No - I'm not asleep! To my utter surprise, OWT slowly - but not too slowly - won me over. I... actually... began... to... like... it!

Reasons I ended up liking OWT (despite my readiness to hate it):

  1. Mr. Bennett is a decent writer. Even if he was doing it for the money.
  2. Unlike Lawrence, Bennett is to the point. He didn't waste my time with page-long paragraphs signifying nothing. There is dialog, and actually has more moments of excitement than I have found is typical for an Edwardian novel. He makes ordinary people interesting.
  3. It's actually humorous in some parts. I would give you some examples, but you would say, "Kristin, that's not really funny." But trust me, when you're reading the book, you will chuckle at a few things. Including: Sophia takes out Povey's wrong tooth; the ironic circumstances in which Mr. Baines dies; the reaction to Sophia's poodle.

OWT concerns the Baines family. First Mr. and Mrs. Baines, who are raising their daughters Constance and Sophia. Then Sophia elopes with a loser (as always happens) and Constance marries one of the shop helpers. Mr. and Mrs. Baines die. Constance runs the shop. Her uncle-in-law kills his wife. Constance's husband dies and her son (Cyril) moves to London and generally is unappreciative of his mother's devotion. Sophia and loser husband move to Paris. He abandons her, but through her own pluck and smarts ends up running a successful pension on the Champs Elysee. After running into Cyril's BFF in Paris, she returns home to Bursley where she and Constance live out the rest of their years. Ok, I know that doesn't sound terribly interesting, or even simply not- boring, but I assure you - I, the most easily bored person on the face of the earth - was not bored. In fact, I rather enjoyed it.

Early 20th century England certainly did have its interesting literary circles, and Bennett was at times in the center of it. All circulating together you had Wells, Woolf, *James,* Conrad, Forster, etc. And they all went to each other's parties and made fun of each others spouses. Woolf - representative of a new modernist streak coming up in literature - had a heated public feud with Bennett over what makes a good novel, and whether the other's novels fit that model. Bennett said Woolf, among with other contemporary authors, had not "displayed the potential for mastering the novel." Woolf was equally vocal about her dislike for Bennett's style, calling him and other "materialist" novelists "mundane" and saying that their books could have been written by government workers. (IMO, she was wrong.) This went on for more than a decade. But when Bennett died, Woolf wrote the following in her diary: "Arnold Bennett died last night; which leaves me sadder than I should have supposed...I yet rather wished him to go on abusing me, and me abusing him." She described him as "a lovable genuine man; impeded, somewhat awkward in life; well meaning; ponderous; kindly; coarse; knowing he was coarse; ...glutted with success; wounded in his feelings; ...set upon writing; always taken in; deluded by splendor and success; but naive; an old bore; ...shopkeeper's view of literature; yet with the rudiments, covered over with fat and prosperity and the desire for hideous Empire furniture, of sensibility." I'm not sure if the quip about hideous Empire furniture is to be taken literally or if she is referring to his writing. Either way. I find it all fascinating, this interplay between these authors, and wish that I could go back and be invited to one of their parties. I wish I could be invited to one of their parties more than I wish that I could be invited to Paris c.1920 with Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I wish this even though parties with Woolf and co. would be much stuffier and high-brow and there would probably be less alcohol involved.

Old Wives' Tale is kind of like a turnip. You're dreading it - you know you have to eat it, but you don't want to. You take the smallest bite possible, and lo and behold, it's not as bad as you thought it would be. It's not your favorite food, but you still don't mind eating it. OWT isn't the best novel I've ever read - it won't knock your socks off. And I'm not entirely sure why it deserves to be considered one of the best of the 20th century - though it's definitely an improvement over some of the others. But it wasn't as terrible as I expected it to be. In fact, Old Wives' Tale was not at all what I was expecting. To my surprise, it turned out much better.

I never thought I would be comparing a novel to a turnip and meaning it as a compliment.


SocrMom78 said...

I have to totally agree with you about your concerns going into "The Old Wives' Tale". The cover alone was enough to worry me. There were enough twists and turns though that you had to keep reading, just to see what would happen to everyone. Especially Sophia. That could have gone a lot of different directions, but I liked the one he chose. It was a fabulous book. If you haven't read "The Death of the Heart" yet, do. I'm halfway through it and it is also an enjoyable surprise.

Kristin said...

Sophia was really interesting. Bennett could have had a lot of intregue there, but he allowed her to follow a simple trajectory, which was very unconventional.

I also really liked Constance - she was a REAL character, with many different dimensions. Sometimes women in these novels can be a bit 1 or 2 dimensional, but I could see Constance as a actual person.

I'll be reading Death of the Heart later in the year. I've been looking forward to that one for a long time.

SocrMom78 said...

I liked how Bennett portrayed Sophia as a 'modern' woman who took care of herself and didn't rely on a husband or even family to help her out. Everything she achieved she made happen on her own, which is pretty unusual for a woman back in WWI. Constance seemed to me to be more 'real', although she took some unconventional chances with Samuel in the shop, like the tickets and signage. I was glad to see her rebel a little bit.

You'll really like "Death of the Heart". I finished it yesterday.