Veronica's Reviews > The Old Wives' Tale

The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett
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's review
Feb 13, 2012

really liked it
Recommended to Veronica by: Modern Library's 100 Best Novels
Read from February 13 to 20, 2012 — I own a copy

Two sisters, quite dissimilar, embark upon their lives and part as very young ladies and reunite as much older women. The Old Wives’ Tale was reportedly based on Bennett’s observations of an elderly woman dining alone in Paris. He believed her peculiar behavior invited ridicule and so wondered at her life as a young woman.

Set in Burslem and Paris beginning near the mid 1800′s through the turn of the century, we meet the appropriately named Baines sisters; sophisticated Sophia and constant Constance and follow them through the end of their lives.

Constance Baines is the homebody, seemingly content with her life at her family’s drapery shop. She accepts her position and seems to have no ambition beyond marriage and supporting the family’s business. She marries Samuel Povey, the shop’s dedicated assistant, ensuring her permanence in Burslem. Family tragedies with the Povey’s take their toll and impact the uneventful days. A seemingly simple woman, I believe there was a little more to her that was never quite revealed. Even upon overhearing things not meant for her ears, she behaved unaffected, but surely was not.

Quite unlike her sister, Sophia Baines decides at an early age that she by no means intends to stay tethered to the family business. She runs away to elope with the young cur, Gerald Scales, who abandons her in Paris. Anticipating troubles, she manages to take money from her husband who had no qualms about leaving her abandoned and penniless. Her wits and self-preservation carry her through and she eventually becomes a successful pension owner, but not until she earns the battle scars of life. Her evidential feelings of superiority to her sister cannot mask her regret for the one thing she does not have; a child of her own.

Chirac, a French acquaintance of Gerald Scales falls in love with Sophia, but the feelings are not mutual. A journalist and a gentleman, he helps Sophia to succeed and become an independent and wealthy woman, When he realizes his adoration is one-sided, he departs in a balloon destined for failure. Bennett’s time writing in Paris surely was the inspiration for this character.


Mrs. Baines had suffered much that day. She knew that she was in an irritable, nervous state, and therefore she said to herself, in her quality of wise woman, “I must watch myself. I mustn’t let myself go.” And she thought how reasonable she was. She did not guess that all her gestures betrayed her; nor did it occur to her that few things are more galling than the spectacle of a person, actuated by lofty motives, obviously trying to be kind and patient under what he considers to be extreme provocation.

He was adopting the injured magisterial tone of the man who is ridiculously trying to conceal from himself and others that he has recently behaved like an ass.

Mr. Bennett evidently had keen insight into the human psyche so I’d love to chat him up over his own upbringing. That he escaped a mundane life to pursue his literary ambitions is a topic I’d applaud him for over a glass of wine although I’d steer clear of the criticism he apparently confronted.

My rating for The Old Wives’ Tale is an 8 out of 10.
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