The writer J.B. Priestley, literary heir to Arnold Bennett by way of geography and diversity of output, described The Old Wives’ Tale as having two “suffering heroines, Constance and Sophia Baines, and three conquering heroes, Time, Mutability and Death.”
One might alternatively say that Bennett’s classic historical novel has one protagonist, Life, and many handmaidens, the most prominent among them, the Baines sisters. If Constance (older, circumspect) and Sophia (ardent, proud) suffer deeply, it is because they are so vividly and fervently alive:
The girls could only press their noses against the window by kneeling on the counter, and this they were doing. Constance’s nose was snub, but agreeably so. Sophia had a fine Roman nose; she was a beautiful creature, beautiful and handsome at the same time. They were both of them rather like racehorses, quivering with delicate, sensitive, and luxuriant life; exquisite, enchanting proof of the circulation of the blood; innocent, artful, rogueish, prim, gushing, ignorant, and miraculously wise. Their ages were sixteen and fifteen; it is an epoch when, if one is frank, one must admit that one has nothing to learn: one has learnt simply everything in the previous six months.
That particular illusion of youthful omniscience, though not the startlingly clear memory of it, had long since left Bennett when he sat down to write The Old Wives’ Tale in his 40th year, only shortly after he’d married. By that time, he already had a handful of published novels to his name, as well as reams of articles and stories, and a life rich with the irony he dispenses so liberally, yet with such compassion, in the tale itself.
The near-600 page novel opens in the 1860s and concludes in 1907, the year Bennett spent writing it. (Yes, you read that right, just one year, and in that same period he also wrote short stories, plays, a guide to literary taste, a profusion of articles and a short comic novel, Buried Alive.)
Bennett deeply admired Guy de Maupassant’s story of one woman’s life, Une Vie (1883), and he wanted to surpass it with his own. The Old Wives’ Tale may be one of the more neglected novels on the Modern Library‘s best of the 20th century list, but it’s there nonetheless.
The novel’s title, however, does little to recommend itself to contemporary readers. While accurate to the extent that the tale told is that of two wives growing old, it is no “foolish story” told by “garrulous old women” as the expression goes (despite a recent feminist intervention).
Bennett’s glimpse of such a woman in a Paris restaurant in the fall of 1903, however, did open his mind to the possibility of the novel, and to that inspiration the title holds true.
That evening, he saw an old woman made ridiculous by time and asked himself, as he recalls in the novel’s preface, what kind of young girl she might once have been when the “unique charm of youth” still hovered about “her form and movements and in her mind.”
Time as we know it only moves in one direction; age, and not youth, is the verb. But what, then, of that mutability of mind known as imagination that moves Bennett to run the clock backwards, to ask ‘what if’? Is it some other mutability altogether or the flipside of Priestley’s coin?
The Old Wives’ Tale, London: Chapman and Hall, 1908