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chesilbeach

Staffordshire - The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett

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STAFFORDSHIRE
 
The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett
 
Synopsis:
First published in 1908, The Old Wives' Tale affirms the integrity of ordinary lives as it tells the story of the Baines sisters--shy, retiring Constance and defiant, romantic Sophia--over the course of nearly half a century. Bennett traces the sisters' lives from childhood in their father's drapery shop in provincial Bursley, England, during the mid-Victorian era, through their married lives, to the modern industrial age, when they are reunited as old women. The setting moves from the Five Towns of Staffordshire to exotic and cosmopolitan Paris, while the action moves from the subdued domestic routine of the Baines household to the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War.
 
 
Other Staffordshire books:
Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett

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I haven't read this article in full yet, but I'm hoping to read The Old Wives' Tale in the not too distant future, so adding the link here as a reminder for when I've finished the book, as it sounds like it's going to be both an interesting book and an interesting article!  Others might find it interesting too. :)
 
The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett – an extraordinary story of ordinary life

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The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett

 

Synopsis:

The Old Wives' Tale deals with the lives of two very different sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, following their stories from their youth, working in their mother's draper's shop, into old age. It is generally regarded as one of Bennett's finest works.

 

Bennett claimed he was inspired to write the novel upon seeing a particular older woman: "This woman was once young, slim, perhaps beautiful; certainly free from ridiculous mannerisms. Very probably she is unconscious of her singularities. Her case is a tragedy. One ought to be able to make a heartrending novel out of the history of a woman such as she. Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque--far from it!--but there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind."

 

Review:

This book was a bit of a mammoth read, and took me a few weeks to finish, but it was worth every minute spent reading it.  The story of the Baines sisters and the very different paths their lives take, and the toll that life takes on them, and is set in the second half of the nineteenth century in the county of Staffordshire. 

 

Despite the fact this is a long story - the story is split into four books and is over 700 pages - you don’t feel that there’s anything superfluous in it.  It’s written in a very straight forward style, with no florid prose that you sometimes find in literature from this period, and it makes for a very readable book.  From the very opening, you know that the two girls come from a family in trade, and while fairly typical of young women of this time, are both unique in their looks and personality.

 

Constance is the more staid of the two, and her story is the more ordinary of the two girls, although as this book proves, even the most ordinary of lives has its own highs and lows, and can be just as fascinating as the wild adventures or the romantic passionate tales of other classics.  Sophia, meanwhile, takes a very different journey through life, dramatic and difficult, that shapes her character and is always compelling to read.

 

While telling their stories, we also see the changing face of English society, but not in the big cities as is so often told, but in the small towns in the West Midlands county of Staffordshire.  We see the expansion of smaller towns, and the pressure to amalgamate (or Federate) a group of towns into one larger city, and how the inhabitants react with the pro and anti groups lobbying the voters.  (I’m not 100% sure, but I think this is based on the federation of towns that became Stoke on Trent in the early twentieth century).

 

I absolutely loved this book (in case you haven’t already figured that out!) and would heartily recommend it for any fans of classic English literature.  Very readable and completely engrossing, another fantastic read from the English Counties list.

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I saw something about Arnold Bennet the other day that claimed he carried a crumpled five-pound note around for 20 years, to give to the first person he saw reading one of his books. :D

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Copied from my blog...

 

The Old Wives' Tale centres around Mr and Mrs Baines and their daughters, Constance and Sophia who live over the family draper's shop in Bursley (based on Burslem in Staffordshire).  Mr Baines is an invalid who doesn't leave his bedroom.  Mrs Baines works in the shop, aided by her daughters and a salesman called Mr Povey.  Whilst Constant is reasonably happy with her lot, the headstrong Sophia longs for more.  She wants to be a schoolteacher, but is prevented by her mother.  When she falls in love with a travelling salesman, she is forced to see him in secret and eventually elopes with him but things aren't straightforward for her and she finds herself alone in Paris.  Meanwhile, back in Bursley life continues to plod along for Constance, who marries Mr Povey and remains working in the shop.  Years pass before the sisters are eventually reunited…

 

This is the second book I've read by Arnold Bennett set in the Five Towns – this one is much more meaty a tale than Anna of the Five Towns.  I really enjoyed this one which I 'whispersynched' – as in I part-read, part-listened to it.  The audio version was brilliantly narrated by David Haig.  A particularly enjoyed Bennett's portrayal of Sophia as a strong character in a world when women were often not in control of their own destinies. Despite the book being around 700 pages long, it didn't feel like a long book – I felt it was definitely quality over quantity.  In terms of the English Counties Challenge, whilst Staffordshire is not an area I'm familiar with (my paternal great-grandfather was born in this county so I'd like to visit at some stage) I think it probably does give a real feel for the country.  Stop stuff.

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