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The Old Wives' Tale

(The Five Towns #5)

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  4,079 ratings  ·  273 reviews
H.G. Wells described The Old Wives' Tale as "by far the finest long novel written in English and in the English fashion". He was, of course, speaking for his own generation, and a hundred years later the opinion may seem somewhat exaggerated. However, there is no doubt that The Old Wives' Tale is a superb novel of its kind, and it is still as readable and enjoyable as ever ...more
Paperback, Modern Library 100 Best Novels Edition, 565 pages
Published November 1st 1999 by Modern Library (first published 1908)
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A simple concept of parallels and contrasts in the lives of sisters, carefully told with gentle irony. It starts in 1864 when Constance and Sophia are 16 and 15 respectively and follows them to the end of their lives.

Book 1 covers their teenage years together above and in a draper’s shop in a small town in the Staffordshire Potteries (central England). Book 2 is in the same location, but focuses on Constance. Book 3 is set in Paris during great political upheaval and war, and is about Sophia. I
Paul Bryant
Sep 30, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: novels
I recall intensely that The Old Wives' Tale had me weeping silently into my mug of tea on more than one occasion as I followed raptly the ordinary tedious lives of two more than a little irritating women from youth to addled toothlessness, whence are we all doomed, although, one hopes, these days, with more humane dentistry and superior bridgework. Ah, humanity! Is it ever thus? Yes, thus it was, thus it is, and thus is to be. Here is a symphony of domesticity, panopticon of disappointment, spou ...more
Diane Barnes
Jun 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
You all know the problem. You've got some great books on your shelves that you really want to read, and you're pretty sure you're going to love them, because of author or subject matter or reputation as a classic. But it's over 500 pages, sometimes a lot over. So you pick it up, but you're aware that in the time it takes to read this one, you could probably finish 2 or 3 shorter books that you also badly want to get to. So you put that big, fat book back on the shelf and opt for the low-hanging ...more

"Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque -- far from it! -- but there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and her 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. It was at (the) instant (of this observation) that I was visi
I listened to this over a very long car ride. Both my husband and I thought it was a very good choice. It is easy to follow and keeps your attention.

The book is about two very different sisters—Constance and Sophia. Their names clue you in to their respective personalities. Constance is constant, good-natured, kind and loving. She is a home-body who wants to stay put. She will be married to a dedicated employee in the family’s drapery store in Bursley. Bursley is modeled on Burslem, Staffordshir
A testament to the power and influence of Goodreads is the discovery of this gem which otherwise would have escaped my notice.

Bennett grabbed me with the second sentence of his preface and never let go for a moment. In many ways this 5 page preface is more compelling than the actual novel. Here he relates an anecdote of sitting in a favorite cafe when an old woman comes in talking to herself and dropping her parcels. She is the subject of immediate ridicule by the two waitresses, one old enough
Jan 31, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was a joy to read. The characters of Sophia and Constance were excellent. There lives chalk and cheese. I was not sure what to expect, and aside for some incredibly long sentences it was a great novel of the day to day lives of the two sisters.

The contrast between the two sisters is incredible. The first part describes the two sisters growing up in their fathers drapers shop. Constance is constant while Sophia has a wild streak and elopes with a traveling salesman. In contrast, Constan
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
He saw a fat, old, ridiculous, shapeless woman in a restaurant. Then he imagined her once as a vivacious young girl, perhaps pretty when she was a young woman, had some love affairs, married, brought forth children, and now she's like that, most likely alone and forgotten. For a long while he thought of writing a story about an old woman like her. When he finally got himself into writing it, he thought it would be more challenging to write about two of them, so Arnold Bennett made them sisters-- ...more
Jan 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Arnold Bennett is one of the great under-read authors ever. His prose is shining-carved out of marble each word beautiful resonating off the surrounding ones. But really-his craft is so pure and every word counts. Of course, it's good his writing is so unsentimental because it keeps his stories from being unbearable sad (instead of just barely bearably painful). This is the book I would recommend people begin with if they don't know Bennett; I found it the most accessible with even a little humo ...more
Rupert Smith
Nov 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I consider Arnold Bennett to be the most underrated of all English novelists, and The Old Wives’ Tale to be one of the great undiscovered (or ‘underdiscovered’) masterpieces of twentieth century literature. Bennett was despised by the Bloomsbury group, particularly Virginia Woolf, who thought him conservative and vulgar; his popularity made him a figure of envy and ridicule amongst the Modernists. Obviously he’s got much more in common with Trollope, Thackeray and Dickens than he does with Joyce ...more
Apr 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: currently
2 sisters, 2 separate lives : "I have been through too much, I cannot stand it." Yes, we're only concerned with our paltry selves, so why do some whine, Why did this novel not mention this or that war or crisis. Why? Cos outside events never matter . In his preface Bennett notes that ordinary people are never aware of history's dramatic events.

And talented Cyril, the child of one sis : so cute, so spoiled. At 33, his "habits were industrious as ever. He seldom spoke of his plans and never of h
Rob Roy
Dec 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: classics
The story of two sisters moving through life to their twilight years. Each faces life's tribulations, and works her way through it, but it is in the end, where they reflect back, that the brilliance of this book comes out. What is life, what contributions and differences do we make, and can we adapt, or should we? These questions permeate the prose of Bennett. One of the better books I have ever read. Possibly, being in my 60's it really speaks to me. ...more
Aug 14, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: best-of-2009
I LOVED THIS BOOK! First published in 1908, it read like a modern-day novel - not tedious and wordy like many Victorian novels. The author painted such vivid characters, scenery and narrative that it was very easy to get swept up in the storyline. Covering a span of 50 years the story is about two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, following their lives from youth into old age. The book is broken down into four "books": Book 1 is about the teen-aged girls and their mother; Book 2 is a chronic ...more
Nov 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017
Finished: 07 November 2017
Title: The Old Wives Tales
Genre: fiction
Score: A++
Review: This was THE best novel on the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels list I’ve read so far. It is strange how fate has changed the lives of the sisters Sophia and Constance. Sophia’s charm and beauty was dazzling…but she was mischievous, proud. She had sinned in the eyes of the Victorians. She fled to Paris. Constance’s had remained, her father had wanted, quiet and the model of consideration. She lived at St. Luke's S
C.S. Burrough
Mar 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone
First published in 1908, this is considered one of Bennett's finest works. His breathtaking detail and description is something to behold.

The story begins around 1840 in the Stafforshire pottery town of Burslem, where young sisters Constance and Sophia Baines work in their parents' draper's shop. They are initially close but contrastingly different girls, Sophie the younger considered incorrigible by the more proper Constance. As they grow up the girls drift, mentally and geographically, apart.
Jan 18, 2014 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Constance and Sophia are two sisters born into the narrow but secure world of their parents' drapery business in the Potteries. The Old Wives' Tale is the story of their lives from girlhood to old age and it is a remarkable masterpiece.
The life experiences of the two are vastly different, yet in essence they end up living the same life. As products of a hard-working, respectable trading class, their values are with them for life. Bennett puts the women centre stage, and male characters are perip
Peter Ellwood
Mar 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
An astonishing, perfect piece of work.

I’ve occasionally recognised, over the years, the not-so deep fact that the way one perceives the quality of a book can in fact depend on one’s own mood at the time. I remember once reading Bleak House as part of my student studies and I read it in 100 page chunks: well, it remains one of my all-time favourite books, a complete masterpiece; but pages 301-400 were quite poor…

Maybe I happened to be in the right, receptive sort of mood here too. Who cares – tr
Mar 16, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I have finally finished this thing. So relieved. I really need to quit subjecting myself to the nauseum that is Victorian novels. Absolutely nothing happens in this book with the exception of the sections dealing with the youngest Baines daughter, Sophia.

Sophia is the only one in the family that actually lived. She left the tiny town of Bursley for, in my opinion, stupid reasons, but she left. And she lived a life worthy of talking about. Constance, the elder sister, sat around, got fat and comp
Elizabeth (Alaska)
The start of this is very slow with much description. I wondered if I'd started another which would be a slog. Not a bit of it, I'm happy to report. Primarily characterization with some small plot to go with it, it is no wonder this is on both Bloom's Western Canon and Boxall's 1001 Books - and maybe other lists, too.

Bennett gives us the inspiration for his story in a preface to the edition I read, wherein he states that he frequented a certain restaurant in Paris. ... an old woman came into the
Laura Leilani
Oct 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: classics, brit-lit
This book has a simple plot. What makes it great are the insights into human nature. Every age of the sisters is very well done, truly giving the reader insight into people at every age. Also, the descriptions of day to day activities of people of the past is very enjoyable. They pull you right into another time! Sometimes I had to look things up, like when the child was fighting a " Boneshaker". I found out that was the wooden precursor of the Pennyfarthing which eventually led to the bicycle. ...more
Lady Clementina ffinch-ffarowmore
Bennett’s very readable telling of the story of Constance and Sophia, two sisters, from young adulthood to old age and death. Bennett shows wonderfully how even ordinary lives — like Constance’s or even Sophia’s (which was certainly more exciting than her sister’s and full of heartbreak and struggle) are full and rich with experiences, they have their little and large tussles, joys, loss and sadness, and even some drama. He also shows that perhaps one can’t label or characterise anything — wheth ...more
May 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I've just finished The Old Wives Tale and absolutely loved it. His characters are so rich with personality, he writes with humour and it's so easy to read. I got totally engrossed in the tale which follows the lives of two sister in the Potteries. It took me a little while to get into it and then I was grabbing the book at every opportunity to immerse myself in this world.

I found the introduction really interesting. Apparently Virginia Woolf didn't rate AB at all, but he was a very popular and
Jayne Fresina
Dec 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A beautifully crafted story and one of the very few that I've been able to really get lost in lately. If you like old-fashioned story-telling, as I do, I recommend you try this. ...more
anna marie
maybe 4.5 but !! i rly enjoyed this
Laura Gembolis
This book is the small details in life. Two sisters - of a mercantile family - lead very different lives. One stays in Bursley her whole life. And the other one scandalously elopes with a less than honorable traveling salesman. Late in life the two sisters reunite. Sophia reflects on her leaving and returning to Bursley Square:

Her return was accepted with indifference. Her escapade of thirty years ago entirely lost its dramatic quality. Many people indeed never heard that she had run away from
Nov 30, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
With one exception, all of Arnold Bennett's fiction was published in the couple of decades following the death of Queen Victoria, yet in tone it is much more Victorian than Edwardian (certainly none of your post-Eliot modernism can be detected at all). In his stated attempt to emulate Flaubert, Zola and other French realists, he has a few startling passages (for example, an attempt to represent the pains of giving birth) that one is hard put to imagine in Elizabeth Gaskell or even the Brontes.
carl  theaker
Apr 30, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

A momentary self-congrats: with this novel, I finished the Modern Library top 100.
Only took me about 5 years, but I did it.

This novel was a worthy finale being quite a tome, 620 pages, and since written
in the early 1900s, was worried it might be difficult.

However it was a pleasant read, the story of the Baines family, primarily
Constance and Sophia from their teens through old age and death. Starting
around 1860, you get a look at the working class districts of England,
a view of middle class life
What did I like about this book? It wasn't really exciting, or novel, nor were the characters that compelling - and yet, it was thoroughly good. The preface helped me to like it, I admit. Bennett writes about seeing two older women in a restaurant and feeling curious about what made them so different and yet brought them to the same place - and wanting for a long time to explore that idea in his writing. So this novel is really focused on the idea that small everyday choices build upon each othe ...more
James Henderson
Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale is a good, but not great, novel about the lives led by two women from a small town in England. While he writes with both a high degree of realism and historical accuracy there are moments, especially in the opening chapters, that test the reader's patience. His devotion to the quotidian details of everyday life does not always rise to the level of interest, even when presented well by a master prose stylist. Our Lincoln Park Book Group discussed this novel th ...more
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Reading 1001: The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett 2 15 Sep 19, 2019 05:15AM  

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Enoch Arnold Bennett (always known as Arnold Bennett) was one of the most remarkable literary figures of his time, a product of the English Potteries that he made famous as the Five Towns. Yet he could hardly wait to escape his home town, and he did so by the sheer force of his ambition to succeed as an author. In his time he turned his hand to every kind of writing, but he will be remembered for ...more

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The Five Towns (1 - 10 of 11 books)
  • A Man from the North
  • Anna of the Five Towns
  • Tales of the Five Towns (Pocket Classics)
  • The Grim Smile of the Five Towns
  • Clayhanger
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