The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) by Arnold Bennett is probably a book you’ve never heard of. I hadn’t heard of it until a few months ago when I came across it at the library. I checked it out, never got to it, and returned it. But I found the e-book for free and downloaded it onto my ipad, so I eventually ended up reading it.
The author’s introduction is charming. He recounts his observation of an older woman in a restaurant who is laughed at and mistreated by others, especially younger people. It inspired him to write about two women and their lives, from youth to death. He wanted to illuminate the human condition and also to create some sort of empathy for older women, who once were younger, more beautiful, and more able.
The two characters, Sophia and Constance Baines, are sisters with opposite personalities. Sophia is daring, adventurous, and romantic. Constance plays it safe and likes to stay at home. I wouldn’t say that I identified with either one based on these personality types, but I did find myself thinking of high school, when I was tempted to do what Sophia did. She runs off with a traveling salesman, much to the horror of her family. She’s young and in love and he promises to take her to Paris. This provincial English girl cannot resist.
I too had a boyfriend in high school who tried to convince me to run away with him. I did not, and I’m glad that I didn’t. I think about where I would be right now if I had run off at sixteen. I’d probably have a lot more children, a lot less education, and most likely be divorced. I would likely be unhappy and poor. When that boy, three years my senior, tried to convince me that we should run away together, I resisted, remembering something a beloved teacher of mine had said: “Don’t give up what you want most for what you want now.” I liked this boy. We had fun together. And when you’re sixteen everything concerning romance and first boyfriends is exciting, especially when that boy is older and seemingly a man. However, I knew that what I wanted most was an education, a husband who had matured much more and was also educated, freedom to be a teenager, and eventual happiness based on hard work and marriage occurring at the right time in my life. This is what I have because I waited and I didn’t fall for the romantic advances of a silly teenage boy who only wanted one thing: to satisfy his own desires.
Well, Sophia does not fare as well as I have. She runs off, ends up being deserted and childless, and lives a life of industry but loneliness. I feel sorry for her. However, I take issue with the author’s moralizing about her life. I frequently moralize; religious people are prone to do so. However, Bennett, upon Sophia’s death, moralizes that:
“Hers had not been a life at all. . . . [F]ate persists in justifying the harsh generalizations of Puritan morals, of the morals in which Constance had been brought up by her stern parents! Sophia had sinned. It was therefore inevitable that she should suffer. An adventure such as she had in wicked and capricious pride undertaken with Gerald Scales, could not conclude otherwise than it had concluded. It could have brought nothing but evil” (866).
These are Constance’s thoughts upon Sophia’s death, but through them the message is clear: if you sin you cannot be forgiven. I disagree. I think the point of Christ’s atonement, or of any religion’s teachings, is to make one better. If we make mistakes, we can repent and change. Hope is not lost. Yet, the lesson we learn from Sophia’s misadventures is that she is forever condemned to suffer the consequences of one major mistake. I can’t imagine how awful life would be if such morality were actually true. We’d all be in gigantic trouble, or as my cousins used to say, “You’d be busted!” Luckily, this book, and Constance, are wrong. People can change. Part of being human is messing up, but through forgiveness we can be better or at least go in a different direction once we realize our error.
Sophia did recognize her error in marrying Gerald. She ended up doing good things in her life. How does that one folly of youth then spoil everything else she tries to do? It doesn’t. Yet Constance persists, a year after Sophia’s death and on her own deathbed, to believe that Sophia’s life was wasted. It wasn’t.
And despite Constance’s own belief in her having lived the “right” way, she has only one son who neglects her and is quite selfish and priggish. He’s a brat as a child and grows up to be a man with no responsibilities or care about other people. Constance has seemingly failed as a mother, yet she continues to judge and pity Sophia because of her own childless existence. The two women come to the same lonely end, which may really tell us that everybody must live life their own way and when the end comes, we are all claimed by the great equalizer of death.
My other problem with the book has to do with the two women’s personalities. The first couple hundred pages are about the girls, and then after Sophia runs away, the author focuses only on Constance. Her life is quite boring and I had trouble really wanting to stick with her story. However, once it concluded, Bennett picks up with what happened to Sophia the moment she ran away. This adventure is gripping and interesting. It was what I had been waiting to read for a hundred pages. The last few hundred pages reunite the sisters and focus on their time together as old women and on their subsequent deaths.
If you’re up for reading about two women’s somewhat ordinary lives for some 600 pages, this is the book for you. If not, I wouldn’t worry about it. I don’t think I’d recommend this book to anybody, but I also can’t say that I didn’t like it. I did. I’m glad I read it.