The Old Wives’ Tale is reputed to be the only English novel that deals with the Siege of Paris, one of my current obsessions. I had read it once, too fast, years earlier, and found it quite dull. This time around, though, I adored it. What changed? I took the time to notice how funny Bennett is.
It is superficially a supremely quiet novel. Bennett follows the lives of Constance and Sophia Baines from their girlhood in a provincial English town to their deaths in the same town, even the same house. The novel opens in the early 1860s and ends early in the twentieth century. Bennett wrote it in 1908. It’s an era that spans enormous cultural change which somehow Bennett manages to convey without much fuss. (He makes good use of the changing transportation technologies, for instance.) But his real interest is in the arc of a human being’s life. And what he demonstrates is that to each human, that life is endlessly eventful.
Constance is the more “Victorian” of the two sisters, a girl who exists contentedly within the framework of the family drapery business — that’s in the older sense of a store where the respectable citizens of Bursley buy their fabrics. She absorbs early and happily maintains the drive toward respectability. Sophia, the younger and beautiful sister, rashly runs away from home with a handsome traveling salesman and ends up marooned in Paris. She lives out the Siege by taking in lodgers. Because she had the foresight to hoard food long before the commencement of the Prussian shelling, her greatest anxieties focus on prices rather than on survival. She is barely aware of the issues at hand.
Bennett manages to be ironic about the sisters while remaining affectionate. It’s a nifty trick: he creates a fairly distanced narrative voice, analyzing the characters’ thoughts and emotions yet frequently swooping into their psyches to cite them verbatim. For instance, here is Constance, near the end of the book, as Sophia engages in a battle with a pert maid: “Constance trembled with painful excitement. The horror of existence closed in upon her. She could imagine nothing more appalling than the pass to which they had been brought by the modern change in the lower classes.” (The complaint about the maid? She didn’t close the door when asked to.) I suppose Bennett does patronize somewhat. But at the same time, he does manage to make these two lives somewhat heroic.