Monday, April 17, 2017

Arnold Bennett – ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’

Bought from the rather wonderful Ironbridge Bookshop after a visit to Enginuity, a museum about how industrial things work. The shop has an entire wall of Penguin books sorted by colour: there’s a lot of orange, but also the dark blue-green of crime, and light blue for Pelican non-fiction. En masse, it’s a great effect. The book is set fifty miles north of Ironbridge, amongst the ‘Five Towns’, a lightly-fictionalised grouping based on six real towns which now constitute Stoke-on-Trent, and which, as observed in its opening pages, supplies the whole country with pottery, at the expense of ‘an architecture of ovens and chimneys’ and an ‘atmosphere […] as black as mud’. This, ‘that you may drink tea out of a teacup and toy with a chop on a plate’ (p. 19). It’s a grim opening, and a slightly misleading one, as the book is set mostly in a draper’s shop: retail, not industry, is its dominant milieu (hospitality plays a supporting role). The story follows two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, from when they are young, in the mid-nineteenth century, to when they are old, in the early twentieth. Constance stays at home and takes over the shop from her parents, marrying an assistant, Samuel Povey, along the way; Sophia elopes to Paris with a supplier’s representative, Gerald Scales, and lives there for thirty years, through the siege in 1870 during which she accumulates enough money (through charging high rent and meal prices) to set up her own boarding house. The smoke and the grime fade quickly from the Midlands portion of the narrative, returning only when they are seen afresh by Sophia after her long absence. In other words, the dirt is presented realistically: those who live with it all the time don’t notice it.

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.
        […] 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)
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’.

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)

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