Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Old Wives' Tale (1908)

Here we have another novel and author from the Modern Library list I had never heard of—Arnold Bennett, who was both British and prolific. The Old Wives' Tale is pretty big, over 600 pages, and your basic pleasure, essentially a bourgeois family's multigenerational history, comparable to Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, focusing on two sisters close in age but with very different fates. Or very different middles, as their fates are similar once they reunite. Their lives are ordinary. There are virtually no historical events here, beyond the grind toward the modern in technology and the capitalist economics that accompanied the 19th century into the 20th. Bennett is one of those writers who can create memorable characters and then let their lives spool out naturally. In a preface, he outlines his intention to tell the life stories of the anonymous middle-aged women all around him (and us). In a way focusing on ordinary women puts him way ahead of the curve. In another way he's just another white man taking advantage of his privilege to tell a story that belongs to others to tell. We have been learning since at least 1908 that people tell their own stories better. Yet even so Bennett is very good at the novel of social manners, once past a certain winding-up in the early going. The structure is a bit awkward, telling the parallel stories of the two sisters, who were separated late in adolescence, in separate sections. Bennett's heart seems closer to Constance, the elder, who is less beautiful, more conventional, and stayed where she was born in rural England. Sophia makes a bad marriage and ends up with a bad life on her own in Paris. Obviously it's the more adventurous and romantic of the two stories, but it goes second and often feels rushed. The reunion when they are both middle-aged, in the last quarter of the novel, is often poignant but also often feels mechanical. Bennett surprises with his insight and compassion, and then surprises again when he seems impatient and hurries through episodes. This is more a problem of the second half. The tempo of the first half, by contrast, especially the Constance chapters, feels almost perfect, stopping to dwell on significant events and then accelerating through time again. No one seemed to be talking about Arnold Bennett when I was in school, or if they were I didn't notice. In a way I can see why he faded, but for once I'm happy about the fuddy-duddy ways of the Modern Library list for putting this one in my way. Recommended for Jane Austen readers.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

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