There are a number of things which struck me as peculiar about The Old Wives’ Tale, which I’m struggling to reconcile, and it is dimly dawning on me that this might be the point. Its tone is detached but amiable, with a particular fondness for dogs. The bulk of it reads like a nineteenth century novel, with a little more licentiousness (around Gerald and Sophia’s elopement), but still, it is startling when cars and telegrams put in an appearance near the end. More startling is the way the sisters age and decline, with strokes of varying severity, obesity and sciatica all contributing. It is a brutally realistic account in some ways, and melodramatic in others: the timing of the attacks tends to coincide with important plot events, as though they are there for emphasis. It is an account, too, of the decline of retail in Bursley:
People would not go to Hanbridge for their bread or for their groceries, but they would go for their cakes. These electric trams had simply carried to Hanbridge the cream, and much of the milk, of Bursley’s retail trade.The Critchlows take the draper’s shop over from Constance, allowing her to live on in the rooms above it, and the pressure of the decline in trade eventually drives Mrs Critchlow to an asylum. Contrast the decline, for example, of Greshamsbury Hall in Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, which seems terminal, but is turned around by a cash injection when Frank marries well. Of course, the beauty of that plot is that he marries for love but ends up with money too. There is no such poetic justice in The Old Wives’ Tale: both sisters marry beneath them, one disastrously, and the only resulting child (Constance’s Cyril) is a neglectful son. Sophia lives in the shadow of her invalid father’s death, for which she was partly responsible, and which put an end to her only worthwhile ambition, to become a school teacher. Both sell their businesses and are comfortably off on the proceeds, but neither knows how to live well, because when they were living their important years, acquiring their habits, every available hour was taken up by trade. Cyril, with a generous £300-a-year from his mother, knows how to live a fashionable life, but has no moral fibre. There aren’t easy answers to any of these things, they are just (as the final section of the novel is entitled) ‘What Life is’.
[…] If Mrs Crichlow had been a philosopher, if she had known that geography had always made history, she would have given up her enterprise a dozen years ago. (pp. 567-8)
Even if it is all ultimately pointless, it isn’t necessarily so at the time. Sophia ran her boarding house well. Constance ran her shop well, and brought up Cyril. And, as I say, dogs. Here is Sophia’s arrival on the platform of Knype station, after thirty years’ absence, observed by Constance:
Presently she saw a singular dog. Other people also saw it. It was the colour of chocolate; it had a head and shoulders richly covered with hair that hung down in thousands of tufts like the tufts of a modern mop such as is bought in shops. This hair stopped suddenly rather less than half-way along the length of the dog’s body, the remainder of which was naked and as smooth as marble. The effect was to give the inhabitants of the Five Towns the impression that the dog had forgotten an essential part of its attire and was outraging decency. The ball of hair which had been allowed to grow on the dog’s tail, and the circles of hair which ornamented its ankles, only served to intensify the impression of indecency. A pink ribbon round its neck completed the outrage. The ribbon had absolutely the air of a decked trollop. A chain ran taut from the creature’s neck into the middle of a small crowd of persons gesticulating over trunks, and Constance traced it to a tall and distinguished woman in a coat and skirt with a rather striking hat. (p. 468)