Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), an English writer prominent in the teens and twenties of the last century, was primarily known as a novelist of the Five Towns, the great pottery manufacturing center in Staffordshire where he was born, and most of his best novels are rooted there. His career was curious: his good novels are interspersed with piffling pot boilers that hardly seem written by the same hand, so there seems to be no progression, no logic. One never knew what he would do next.
After ten years of trifling novels, Bennett published The Old Wives Tale in 1908, his masterpiece and perhaps the greatest novel in the language. It is the story of the lives of two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, from their late teens until their deaths fifty years later. In a few pages, Bennett creates the surrounding background of the county, the pottery district, St. Luke's Square in Bursley, and the Baineses' drapery shop, with a few touches that give us the character of John Baines, the bedridden father. Such an opening may seem like atmospheric padding, but long before we reach the end of the book we know how much all these things are factors in the life of the girls. Their individuality is soon apparent: Constance is sweet, dutiful, sensible; Sophia is willful, proud, unreasoning, and as the book progresses and events test their characters, we see how their individualities are refined and modified, just as we also see how they have been shaped by their parents and where they were raised. It is fascinating to watch them develop and to see how they master, each in her own way, the vicissitudes of life. No other novel in English that I know of gives us such a sense of character and its development.
We are made aware from the beginning that even the simplest choices involve complexities of character, and Bennett uses these situations to reveal character. Early on, for instance, a struggle develops between Mrs. Baines and Sophia over the latter's desire to become a teacher, a bitter struggle which Sophia wins. Here is the author's account of the mother's feelings.
There is no need to insist on the tragic grandeur of Mrs. Baines's renunciation -- a renunciation which implied her acceptance of a change in the balance of power in her realm. Part of its tragedy was that none, not even Constance, could divine the intensity of Mrs. Baines's suffering. She had no confidante; she was incapable of showing a wound. . . . she felt all the bitterness of age against youth -- youth egotistic, harsh, cruel, uncompromising youth that is so crude, so ignorant of life, so slow to understand! She had Constance. Yes, but it would be twenty years before Constance could appreciate the sacrifice of Judgment and of pride which her mother had made. . . . Probably Constance thought that she had yielded to Sophia's passionate temper! Impossible to explain to Constance that she had yielded to nothing but a perception of Sophia's complete inability to hear reason and wisdom. Ah! Sometimes as she lay in the dark, she would, in fancy, snatch her heart from her bosom and fling it down before Sophia, bleeding, and cry: "See what I carry about with me, on your account!" Then she would take it back and hide it again, and sweeten her bitterness with wise admonitions to herself.
All this because Sophia, aware that if she stayed in the house she would be compelled to help in the shop, chose an honorable activity which freed her from the danger. Heart, how absurd of you to bleed!
The last line is a rational judgment from outside the lives of the characters, and Bennett says it in order to emphasize how wide of the truth of life such a judgment is -- because we do not live life from the outside, objectively, but from the inside with all our tangles of feeling and thought.
One of the finest aspects of Bennett's view of life is that none of the characters are petty. Of the death of Samuel Povey, Constance's husband, he says (my emphasis):
Samuel Povey never could impose himself on the burgesses. He lacked individuality. He was little. I have often laughed at Samuel Povey. But I liked and respected him. He was a very honest man. I have always been glad to think that, at the end of his life, destiny took hold of him and displayed, to the observant, the vein of greatness which runs through every soul without exception. He embraced a cause, lost it, and died of it.
This is woven into the texture of the book's theme: the inexorable passage of time, which yet "cannot diminish the meaning and importance of every human life" (Dudley Barker). We are shown this in Sophia's thoughts when she regards the corpse of Gerald Scales. He has turned up, penniless on the point of death, at the shop of one of his relatives, who wires Sophia. When she arrives, he is dead.
Sophia then experienced a pure and primitive emotion, uncolored by any moral or religious quality. She was not sorry that Gerald had wasted his life, nor that he was a shame to his years and to her. The manner of his life was of no importance. What affected her was that he had once been young, and that he had grown old, and was now dead. That was all. Youth and vigour had come to that. Youth and vigour always came to that. Everything came to that. He had ill-treated her; he had abandoned her, he had been a devious rascal; but how trivial were such accusations against him! The whole of her huge and bitter grievance against him fell to pieces and crumbled. She saw him young, and proud, and strong, as for instance when he had kissed her lying on the bed in that London hotel -- she forgot the name -- in 1866; and now he was old, and worn, and horrible, and dead. It was the riddle of life that was puzzling and killing her. By the corner of her eye, reflected in the mirror of a wardrobe near the bed, she glimpsed a tall, forlorn woman, who had once been young and now was old; who had once exulted in abundant strength, and trodden proudly on the neck of circumstance, and now was old. He and she had once loved and burned and quarreled in the glittering and scornful pride of youth. But time had worn them out. "Yet a little while," she thought, "and I shall be lying on a bed like that! And what shall I have lived for? What is the meaning of it?" The riddle of life itself was killing her, and she seemed to drown in a sea of inexpressible sorrow.
But after these ruminations, when the relative knocks at the door, (my emphasis).
"Come in," she said, in a calm, resigned, cheerful voice. The sound had recalled her with the swiftness of a miracle to the unconquerable dignity of human pride.
I know of no other novel that gives the readers such a comprehension of, and feeling for, its characters. By touching these ordinary lives with universal significance, Bennett has dignified all our lives.
In 1924, Virginia Woolf gave a talk which was later published as "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," in which she claimed that a cultural shift had occurred at about the time of King Edward's death in 1910, and she called older writers, like Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy Edwardians and the younger writers Georgians after the new king. She names D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster, and she also has herself in mind. The main burden of her charge against the Edwardians (she is particularly contemptuous of Bennett) is that they:
. . . laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there . . . if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it.
Her own practice in her novels was to avoid "things" as much as possible, concentrating instead on the inner thoughts, feelings, and moods of her characters, especially as they are expressed in concentrated moments (see the discussion of Mimesis in the sixth essay in this series). To the Lighthouse (1927), generally regarded as her most characteristic novel, uses this method, and I have to say that I know as little of Mrs. Ramsey, the central character, at the end of the book as at the beginning, and what is much worse, I have no feeling for her whatsoever. But of course, she was quite wrong about "things." As The Old Wives Tale amply demonstrates, things do help to define us. What Sophia thinks of the prostitute's furniture she buys and how she uses it in her improvised boarding house during the siege of Paris is very revealing, just as Constance's reference to flowers on the mantelpiece as her "garden" is. Give me Arnold Bennett anytime; at least he enhanced our sense of human dignity -- and we know what modern writers think of that. Perhaps Max Beerbohm said it best, as reported in David Cecil's Max: A Biography.
Henry James told him he did not think much of it; "What's it about?" he asked, and repeated testily, "What is it about?" "Why," said Max, relating the incident in later years, with reminiscent indignation, "Why, I told him, it's about the passing of time, about the stealthy merging of youth into age, the invisibility of the traps in our own characters into which we walk unwary, unknowing.". . . There is nothing stylish about The Old Wives Tale, nor is it in the obvious sense "beautiful." Its strength lies in its vision, at once penetrating and heartfelt, of the basic human situation as it presents itself to the average human being.
Additional Reading: Clayhanger, 1910; Hilda Lessways, 1911; These Twain, 1916, A trilogy; The Card, 1911, A comic novel; Riceyman Steps, 1923, Absorbing novel about a miser.
Woolf, Virginia, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" in The Hogarth Essays, 1928. *
"Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper." --Francis Bacon