callmemadam (callmemadam) wrote,

The Old Wives’ Tale

I dearly love a book you can lose yourself in and for the past few days I’ve lost myself as often as possible in Arnold Bennett’s 1908 masterpiece. It’s years since I read it and I’d forgotten just how good it is.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, ‘Baines’s’ the drapers is in St Luke’s Square, in Bursley, in the Potteries, in the centre of England. To its narrow minded occupants, few of whom have travelled even as far as Manchester, St Luke’s Square is not just the centre of the universe; it is the universe. This is the world Constance and Sophia Baines were born into; living above the shop, instilled with habits of work and obedience, surrounded by comfort. Before the visitor had got very far, Maggie came in with a lacquered tea-caddy and the silver teapot and a silver spoon on a lacquered tray. Mrs. Baines, while continuing to talk, chose a key from her bunch, unlocked the tea-caddy, and transferred four teaspoonfuls of tea from it to the teapot and relocked the caddy.
‘Things’, which should always be as good as possible, are very important, as is correct observance of custom and ritual. When Mr Baines dies, Every guest, after having been measured and presented with a pair of the finest black kid gloves by Mr. Povey, had to mount the crooked stairs and gaze upon the carcass of John Baines

Bennett pokes gentle fun at those times:
In all the Five Towns there was not a public bath, nor a free library, nor a municipal park, nor a telephone, nor yet a board- school. People had not understood the vital necessity of going away to the seaside every year.
Yet, as with Galsworthy’s introduction to The Forsyte Saga, you detect a nostalgia for the values and certainties of those days. Constance, the elder sister, is plump and pretty, a good girl happy to do as her mother wishes and work in the shop. She’s not imaginative and no other future occurs to her. Sophia is different. Beautiful, clever, rebellious, she longs for another way of life without knowing quite what she wants. This leads her into a rash elopement with a handsome but no-good man. He intends seduction, she insists on marriage, they go to live in France and her shocked family receives only the occasional card to let them know she is still alive.

After this scandal Constance makes a prudent marriage to Mr Povey, the two of them run the shop, prosper and have a son, Cyril. Meanwhile Sophia is deserted by her husband and thrown on her own resources and £200 she’s sensibly stolen from the wretch while he was asleep. The rest of her time in France shows that while you may take the girl out of Bursley, you can’t take Bursley out of the girl. Recovering from a dangerous illness, she finds the house she has been brought to is filthy and scours and disinfects it just as her mother or sister would have done. Using her money she takes over the lease of the apartment and lets rooms. When the Prussians lay siege to Paris she stocks up on food and is able to feed her tenants and make a pretty profit selling goods. She next takes over an English pension which she runs on lines of cleanliness and respectability which would have satisfied even someone from Bursley, while remaining beautiful, aloof, mysterious. She makes a lot of money.

You’d think that the life of a woman who lived through the siege of Paris and the Commune would be more interesting than one spent in St Luke’s Square. That isn’t at all the case, a sure sign that to most people the small things of life are what matter. As an older Sophia reflects, She had grown old and hard in joyless years in order to amass this money which Cyril would spend coldly and ungratefully, never thinking of the immense effort and endless sacrifice which had gone to its collection. Back in the Square, Mr Povey dies, Cyril grows up, leaves for London with an art scholarship and Constance is left alone. "I'm a lonely old woman now. I've nothing to live for any more, and I'm no use to anybody. Once I was young and proud. And this is what my life has come to! This is the end!" A chance visitor intervenes by visiting Sophia’s pension and recognizing her name. At last Constance has an address for the sister she thinks of so often and writes. Sophia writes. Sophia has a mild stroke, decides to sell up and visit Constance. Once again there are two sisters living above the shop, now run by a former assistant.

They are so different, yet Considering the difference of their lives, they agreed marvellously in their judgment of things. This is because "Nothing could change a Baines." Constance has become older than her years, set in her ways, suffering from incapacitating sciatica. Sophia wants to stir her up, spend some of their money yet it’s Constance who felt sorry for her … Sophia's life, in its way, had been as narrow as Constance's. Though her experience of human nature was wide, she had been in a groove as deep as Constance's. She had been utterly absorbed in doing one single thing.

Will the devoted sisters live comfortably together in peace? Neither reaches any great age. When Constance finds herself alone again, she is relieved to be able to settle back into her groove. She saw nothing but Bursley, and in Bursley nothing but the Square. This is why she opposes the Federation of the Five Towns, in which Bursley would lose its individuality. Times are hard there, the Square not what it was, but she is indomitable. Weak and ill she makes her way to the Town Hall to vote and quite literally catches her death. So ends the story of the Baines family of Bursley, for it’s clear that the charming but enigmatic Cyril, now a wealthy young man, will live in London and abroad.

In this book Arnold Bennett chronicles a whole way of life with a wealth of detail which makes what could be dull (what happened to two women) fascinating; a reflection of the age they lived in, the passing of old ways. The reader is left to decide whether people are necessarily happier once they have municipal parks and board-schools.

This was a free download for the Kindle. So much less bother than going outside in the cold to get my old copy.
Tags: arnold bennett, kindle

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