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The Old Wives' Tale ()


Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (87)

Arnold Bennett was in a restaurant in Paris one day and a haggard old woman, apparently a maniac, got into a tussle with a beautiful young waitress.  Bennett had an epiphany and realized that the old woman too must have once been young and pretty and full of life.  He decided there and then to write a novel that would chart the arc of such a woman's life.  The result is this naturalist classic, by one of the last truly 19th Century writers.  But it begs the question: is an author a humanist or a condescending phallus when it comes as a revelation to him that old unattractive women may have lead full and interesting lives?

In the event, Bennett wrote a book about two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, daughters of a shopkeeper in the Five Towns where he set all of his novels.  Sophia, who leads the more exciting life, runs off to Paris with a louse of a husband, but Constance, modeled on the old woman, stays in Bursley and marries the assistant in the shop.  Late in life, the two women are reunited, dying within a brief time of one another.  The version of the book that I read has an Introduction by JB Priestley, wherein he says:

    If we think first of the two sisters as young girls, then this tale is grim, a tragedy; but if we think
    first (as Bennett did) of the apparently dull old women and then realise that they marched through
    this epic, then the tale is a romance.

Now, I'm not the most sensitive flower in the garden, but I just find that totally offensive.  It seems to me that it is a fair representation of the attitude of the intelligentsia throughout history:  pity the poor hoi polloi, what dull lives they must lead.  But it defies logic to assume that the great mass of mankind leads lives of desparation and disappointment.  It would seem that the contrary is probably true; most folks probably lead perfectly satisfactory lives, even if they are just working 9 to 5 and then going bowling or watching wrestling and NASCAR on TV.  We may not all pursue the same highbrow interests as the authors and artists of the world, but there's no reason to assume that we're any less happy with our lives.  And even the fat old chick pumping coins into a video poker machine may be as happy as a pig in slop.

I had honestly never even heard of Bennett until there was a piece on him in the New York Times Book Review a couple of years ago.  I've since made an effort to read his stuff and I find much to like in his work.  But the attitude that gave birth to this book infects his narrative voice and I found it pretty annoying.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -etext: The Grand Babylon Hotel  Arnold Bennett  (1902)
    -Arnold Bennett
    -Arnold Bennett - Son of Stoke-on-Trent
    -ESSAY: Bennett & Gissing (Frank Kermode, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Writer by Trade: A Portrait of Arnold Bennett by Dudley Barker (Christopher Ricks, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Who's Afraid of Arnold Bennett? (Wendy Lesser, NY Times Book Review)

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