Friday, March 18, 2011

390. The Old Wives Tale – Arnold Bennett

History: This book was published in 1908. A facsimile edition of the manuscript has been published, which is a testament to Bennett's calligraphic skills. The original manuscript is in the Lilly Library, Indiana.
Plot: The book is broken up into four parts. The first section, "Mrs Baines" details the adolescence of both Sophia and Constance, and their life in their father's shop and house (a combined property). Sophia is beautiful, strong willed, adventurous, and courageous, and Constance is plain, humble, obedient, and cautious. The opening scene: their home in a small town in England. Sophia and Constance are in their teens, sharing a cozy afternoon; young, innocent, playful, and oblivious of their future. The father is ill and bedridden, and the main adult in their life is Mrs Baines, their mother. Sophia is mischievous and brave, and somewhat careless. She intentionally breaks the strict rules of the household, while Constance is continually looking on disapprovingly, however admires her spunk and finds her antics humorous. The tragedy occurs when Sophia is supposed to be taking care of her father, but is neglectful and he falls, leading to his death.
Sophia covers up her neglect, but is sorrowful and ashamed. She begins a flirtation with Gerald Scales, a traveling salesman. She was determined to leave her home, which had been unhappy to her since the death of her father, and eventually the two ran away together. Gerald promised to marry her, took her to Paris and, after trying to trick her, he eventually married her. She had stolen money from her mother's friend to escape, and was able to make her way in Paris.
Constance meanwhile marries Mr Povey, who works in the shop. He is much older and they settle into a quiet but content life together.
The second part, "Constance", details the life of Constance from that point forward up until the time she is reunited with her sister in old age. Her life, although outwardly prosaic, is nevertheless filled with personal incident, most frequently with her son, Cyril who is much like Sophia. She loves him dearly, and he is spoiled rotten. Cyril grows, becomes more independent and rebellious, and with Mr. Povey's attempts a discipline is somewhat controlled.
But Mr Povey, being so much older, dies when Cyril is a teenager. He leaves Sophia well taken care of, and her wealth is compounded when her mother also dies, leaving her very comfortable, but daily angst with Cyril takes up most of her thoughts. He eventually leaves home to study art in London, Constance is depressed in her loneliness.
The third part, "Sophia", carries forward the story of what happened to Sophia after her elopement. Abandoned by her husband in Paris, Sophia becomes very ill, and is taken by Chirac, her husbands acquaintance to live with some prostitutes until she is nursed back to health. She eventually becomes the owner of a successful pension. She starts a boarding house, and it becomes very successful. She has an intermittent relationship with Chirac but nothing comes of it. He eventually disappears in an air balloon.
A friend of Cyril's, visiting Paris, recognizes her face (who looks just like Cyril) and realizes she is his missing aunt Sophia. Sophia considers selling her business and returning home.
The final part, "What Life Is", details how the two sisters are eventually reunited. Sophia returns to England and the house of her childhood, where Constance still lives. They live together very closely, Constance putting all trust and faith into the head strong Sophia. Constance is bothered with sciatica, and takes to the bed frequently, usually for weeks. Sophia nurses her and takes charge of her and the household. There are tales of the servants attitudes, and the dogs, and Cyril of course.
In a letter, Sophia hears of her husbands illness, and visits him only to find him already dead. She is traumatized, and that night is stricken with probably a stroke. No matter what attempts the doctor made, she dies. Constance admits relief, and returns home alone. A time later, Constance also dies, leaving Cyril a fortune. He lives on, without a sentiment or thought.
Review: The Old Wives Tale is exactly that - a tale of three women who marry in very different circumstances. Mrs. Baines, the mother, is a life who is only briefly touched upon. However, the separate lives of the two sisters, Sophia and Constance, are the crux of the book. Each life takes its' turn. We are first told about Constance, then about Sophia, and finally, about their reunion. Constance, whose name is not a coincidence, lives a simple provincial life, and Sophia, whose name also matches her persona, chooses romance and adventure. There is only one villain, and yet, he is perhaps the most powerful and chilling of all villains, Time. His grasping, clutching, suffocating presence is ever felt throughout the book, and looms even larger once that final page is turned. In the end, Sophia and Constance each pay the price for their choices, and the true cost of those choices is left for the reader to decide. As unique as we are, we will each believe something different about Sophia and Constance in the end, and that is precisely the point.
In fact, it should be a large clue to readers when they see that the title of the fourth section is, What Life Is. It is here that something occurred which I totally unexpected, and it left me quite shaken - in fact, desperate. I found that I had been brought from the comfortable vantage point of observing these fictional lives, which are at times inexplicably amusing and heroic, to a sudden uncomfortable sensation that the characters were real and had turned toward me - the reader - begging the question "What of your life? What have you done with it? What have you accomplished?"
That subtle change of vantage point was shocking, and ingenious. Without criticizing his own creation, the author was able to communicate the importance of living our lives to the fullest without telling us how. This fact alone shows great wisdom. Sophia and Constance experience remarkable things, no more remarkable than most people, but remarkable just the same. Each reacts differently because they are different, and each has a different idea about how to find happiness and how to deal with life's disappointments. Both are frequently of the opinion that they could improve someone else's life, yet have not found real satisfaction in their own. Each makes mistakes, and each perform the heroic. The author will on the same page be blunt about their faults and tender with their plight. He tells their story without judgment, and yet in the end, you feel you have read a very wise judgment on the nature of the human race. Here, reader, you will find no prescription for life, but a question that begs a diagnosis. The author makes it starkly clear that the remedy, or whether a remedy is even required, is up to you.
The Old Wives Tale is not a dark story. It is not a comedy. It is not high adventure or mystery. In fact, it is many of these things put together to create something REAL.
Opening Line: "Those two girls, Constance and Sophia Baines, paid no heed to the manifold interest of their situation, of which, indeed, they had never been conscious."
Closing Line: "She glanced at the soup-plate, and, on the chance that it might after all contain something worth inspection, she awkwardly balanced herself on her old legs and went to it again."
Quotes: "Had they been accused of monomania they would have smiled the smile of people confident in
their commonsense and their mental balance. Nevertheless, they were monomaniacs. Instinctively they concealed the fact as much as possible; They never admitted it even to themselves. Samuel, indeed, would often say: "That child is not everybody."
Rating: Very Good

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