“The Ridiculous Child”: Continuing The Old Wives’ Tale

Having so to speak thwarted—through no effort of her own since she had no knowledge of it—her mother’s plan to keep her away from Gerard Scales, a bounder if I ever saw one, Sophia Baines follows a plan of her own, as much to deceive herself as anyone else. She will visit her good friend Miss Chetwynd, a teacher who has seen promise in the young woman and offered her a different life, one she has rejected but, we are led to believe, from having read other novels and the not-so-subtle hints dropped in this one, will live to regret not taking.

She will arrive at Miss Chetwynd’s shortly after four, soon after school lets out, which, admittedly, is the time when her friend invariably takes a walk. Which means that when she calls she will be told Miss Chetwynd is not at home. She will be surprised by this mistake, having come all this way for naught. Perhaps she will walk a little more, on her own, already a daring thing to do. (Is it Miss Chetwynd’s age that allows her such freedom?) Sophia might take a right turn here, in fact she will, for she is not wandering, she has a destination, the one doubtless indicated in the note Scales passed to her in the shop that morning. Her heart is beating fast—she is having a “terrific adventure.” She tells herself she is “a wicked girl” and “a fool,” but the words don’t mean anything, or if they do they are no match for her actions. We are told she is motivated in part by vanity at Scales’s interest in her. But also by “an immense, naïve curiosity.” She is doing something nothing in her background has prepared her for or would ever license, and she wants to know what it feels like.

My questions about this second section of The Old Wives’ Tale are exemplified by that phrase “immense, naïve curiosity.” Is it earnest or ironic? What’s most interested me about the novel so far is its narrative voice. The secret meeting between Sophia and Scales—breathlessly called in the chapter title “escapade,” with neither definite nor indefinite article to qualify it—is a fine place to consider that voice. Besides, it’s such a vivid, exciting, and strange scene.

A few things caught my eye. First, the detail of the marl on Scales’s shoes, a hint that he is soiled in some way, though if so presumably she is too, since the clay-lime mixture gets on her shoes as well, eventually catching her out, but more interesting to me as an example of the way the oddest details sear themselves into our attention at heightened moments. Second, the description of the railway construction as violent both to the earth and the social order (the railway cutting is “a raw gash,” the busy workers confusingly both “like flies in a great wound”—I was obscurely reminded of the elephant corpse—and like “dangerous beasts of prey” who are scandalous, unspeakable, and virile (open shirts “revealing hairy chests”): as such the navies both disgust and entice Sophia and Scales. Third, the triangulation of desire through the combination of sex and class: the initial awkwardness between the soon-to-be couple disappears when the two literally look down on the workers and consider their own superior manners, although something about the men must be arousing, for even though Bennett tells us “No doubt they both thought how inconvenient it was that railways could not be brought into existence without the aid of such revolting and swinish animals” this peculiar description (it incites doubt rather than quelling it) is accompanied by “a united blush,” which I read less as embarrassment than excitement. And finally there’s the business with the old pit-shaft, which Scales, perhaps out of boyish shyness or, more likely, brute carelessness, must look down, even though Sophia really doesn’t want him to. (To be fair to him, he expresses “awe” at the presence of this old, terrible thing. Will future generations look on the railway line, perhaps itself one day abandoned, similarly?) Sophia’s vision of miners’ ghosts trapped underground amid “the secret terrors of the earth” surprised me. Where does this horror come from? It’s not that I didn’t believe it; it’s that I found it so intriguing. Her shrieks—which are either only in her mind, or else of no consequence to Scales: he doesn’t seem to hear them, only notices her transformed face when he comes down the wall around the shaft—indicate fear as intense and jarring as the language describing the navies. This might be an expression of Sophia’s guilt and fear at keeping the rendezvous, but the moment also felt somehow atavistic. (Just like the elephant was excessive in some fascinating way.) Not sure what I have in mind, exactly, but if someone falls into a pit or something later in this novel, I won’t be surprised.

The mismatch between how the abandoned mine—and perhaps the whole encounter—makes each of them feel leads to disagreement. At first, as Sophia stormed away, I thrilled to the possibility that she might leave Scales for good, but of course it’s not to be. (That wouldn’t happen even in Lawrence.) Sophia doesn’t know herself enough to know what she is feeling. Or does she? Help me understand the tone of this passage:

She kept on, the ridiculous child. But the agony she had suffered as he clung to the frail wall was not ridiculous, nor her tremendous indignation when, after disobeying her, he forgot she was a queen. To her the scene was sublimely tragic. Soon she had recrossed the bridge, but not the same she! So this was the end of the incredible adventure!

Here the narrative voice seems especially labile. The final sentence, probably the final two sentences, offer Sophia’s thoughts. Indignation, despair, even something like a fall into experience. (Though not one that will change her behaviour, as we soon learn. If she is changed, it is as someone who now knows what it is to have an adventure—you don’t get what you expect—not as someone who sees through the gaudy charms of a fancy man.) But what about the first half of the paragraph? That “ridiculous child”: does its judgment come from the narrator or from Scales? (Is this free indirect discourse, in other words.) The phrase would fit with Scales’s actions in this scene and elsewhere, but there’s no other indication here that we are inside his mind. Which must mean the narrator owns the description. In that case, does the second sentence qualify the first? It begins by seeming to acknowledge the authenticity of Sophia’s feelings. She really was in agony. But as it continues the sentence becomes less generous. That her indignation is “tremendous” already hints at something overstated, silly. The idea of disobedience seems rather strong too. It implies that the relationship is asymmetrical. As does the description of Sophia as a queen. These aren’t, as we might first have thought, the narrator’s conclusions, they’re the girl’s delusions. I think we’re meant to roll our eyes here, and say, “Yeah that’s what she thinks she is.”

That said, the adjective “frail” counters that reading. The initial description of the pit describes it as “a dilapidated low brick wall,” quite a contrast to Scales’s later claim that it is “as firm as a rock.” Sophia’s take is “right”—it accords with the objective reality of the world. And yet that first description might not be “objective”—there may be no such thing here, for it reads, in full, “Suddenly Mr Scales stopped at a dilapidated low brick wall, built in a circle, close to the side of the road.” To me, that “Mr” strongly implies Sophia’s perspective—and in fact she later calls him that: “‘I’ll thank you not to follow me, Mr Scales.’” Then again—nothing but zigzags here, sorry—flipping back through the text Scales seems always to be called Mr. So I don’t know what to think. I’m similarly puzzled by the next sentence in our passage: “To her the scene was sublimely tragic.” Is the narrator telling us how Sophia feels? Or is he continuing to present her thinking? If the latter, is the idea that Sophia has some sense of the partiality of her interpretation? If the former, does the narrator want us to respect her feeling or dismiss it? Sometimes I think the novel uses these narrative techniques or irony and ventriloquism to argue that people can’t understand each other. Other times I think the novel is itself an unwitting example of that failure.

Two more quick thoughts:

  • The stakes of generational conflict feel peculiarly strange in this novel. Parents and children alike think of it in terms of murder. I’m thinking of the commonly held belief that Sophia killed her father in her moment’s inattention. And of the way Sophia inwardly braces for her mother’s anger when she learns about the meeting with Scales, by repeating—so often that I have to conclude she really believes it to be a possibility—“She can’t kill me.”
  • The temporal compression at the end of Book I is impressive. So much happens so quickly. Do you think we have seen the last of Mrs. Baines?

Let me know what you think of the narrative voice—and about anything else that struck you this week!

17 thoughts on ““The Ridiculous Child”: Continuing The Old Wives’ Tale

  1. So much to think about here! I’m going to have a stab at that paragraph about her as a “ridiculous child” to start with. I agree that the point of view is really moving around there, but I tend to think the first two sentences are the narrator’s, emphasizing both that she is in many ways a child and being ridiculous (she is ignorant, impulsive, unworldly)–but that even so, the emotions she is feeling are significant. There’s something true about that combination of the absurd and the tragic, especially for someone her age: adult feelings without adult comprehension, something like that.

    What IS she screaming about? I like your word “atavistic.” Is the mineshaft a sexual symbol? (In Lawrence, wouldn’t we think so?) She is so offended when she realizes that his intentions are sexual (though surely she understood this in some sense already). The line about his forgetting she was a queen suggests that she had imagined her sexuality to give her power and now realizes it doesn’t, or at least might not.

    The mine shaft that come most immediately to mind for me as a literary predecessor was the one in Hard Times that Stephen Blackpool falls down to his death. There the literal and the metaphorical merge as part of Dickens’s critique of the way industrialization and heartless capitalists are destroying both nature and humanity. I thought there was some of that here–those bits you highlight about the railway are great–but I didn’t arrive at this scene knowing that any such social criticism was part of the novel so I found it disorienting.

    I really liked the compression, the rapidity of Mrs Baines’s dislocation. I felt like it took me by surprise very much the way the whole unfolding family catastrophe has taken her by surprise.

  2. I liked that ending of this book as well–the swift telescoping of time, shown through Mrs. Baines’s changing body: “whither she had once come as slim as a wand, to return stout and heavy, and heavy-hearted, to her childhood…” One weird thing about getting older and having a longer stretch of past to survey is the ability to marvel at people’s physical changes. The characters in this book feel very bodily to me; I can picture them and see them gradually transforming across the years.

    But even here the narrative tone that Dorian comments on is interesting. That sentence I just quoted seems canny and perceptive, yet what follows, returning to the idea of the personified house, feels more trite, like Dickens in his sentimental mode: “The grimy and impassive old house perhaps heard her heart saying: ‘Only yesterday they were little girls, ever so tiny, and now—’”

    Going back to Sophia’s escapade and that “labile” narrative voice (the perfect word for this quality) and the way it shifts around from the characters to the judgey omniscient narrator. What did Bennett think he was doing, I wonder? Was it intentional, a precursor of the free indirect speech technique that was yet to become a thing? Or an accident, a slippage in control of the point of view? Or maybe it manifests the attitude of retrospect when a lot of time has passed. Thanks to memory, the narrating consciousness identifies fully with the sensations and emotions and self-justifications of each moment; but thanks to age, one is more detached, objective, and judgmental: “You ridiculous child,” says present me to 17yo me, at the same time wincing because I was that ridiculous person, I know her all too well.

    Interesting point about the generational conflict! I hadn’t focused on that before, but I can sure see it.

    Some final, random impressions: (1) As a Methodist, I enjoyed the depiction of the Wesleyan Methodists, who are already on their bougie climb out of their ascetic, populist beginnings. I have never been to a Watch Night service, but I knew they were a big deal to the Wesleys, and the order of worship for this service is extant in the back of our hymnal.

    (2) What is it with awful visiting aunts in literature? I’m re-listening to Harry Potter on dog walks these days, and ponderous, officious Aunt Marge in that series feels very much like Aunt Harriet here…or like Aunt Alexandra in To Kill a Mockingbird…even in the way they descend upon a household.

    (3) Dorian, I’m glad you have a bounder detector. This sounds like a very useful device to have, and your own daughter is not even a teenager yet.

    • Speaking of bodies, I’m wondering if we’ll hear anything more about Povey’s teeth. Or if Gerald’s “shortish”ness becomes in any way part of the plot later on.

      What did you make of Harriet’s blatant favoritism for Sophia over Constance? It was the opposite of what I expected. It’s possible that it’s part of the cynical plan to remove Sophia from the house, but that doesn’t explain why “Constance, dear Constance, was also looked at askance.”

  3. Re:the unstable narrative voice, I think I most strongly noticed this back in the first section we read, that scene where Sophia looks at the drawing with fashions from Paris. Parts of the narration are disdainful and sarcastic, yet in that same voice there are childlike thoughts that don’t make sense. For example, how could this wise narrator be convinced that 20 nearly-identical women of the same age are sisters? A bit later, Sophia’s thoughts are called out separately. Maybe the narrator is self-consciously adopting the perspective of the characters in moments like that? Sometimes sympathetically, sometimes less so. In any case, it’s often pretty unexpected and jarring for me.

    Did anyone have any clue what Bennett meant when he was talking about “the Eternal Purpose” that cast off Mrs. Baines? Procreation, matrimony, being part of a society? Sometimes the narration is obscure, but maybe I’m just missing cultural knowledge.

    • I wonder if (the uncharitable take) Bennett just isn’t very good at – or, isn’t very self-conscious about – narrative voice. With a writer like George Eliot, it’s such a deliberate tool and serves such key thematic purposes that it’s always worth closely examining (IMHO etc.). I’m not convinced Bennett is paying that kind of attention to it.

      • It’s for sure that the narrative voice doesn’t work in the same way George Eliot’s narrative voices do. ( I too am a George Eliot reader. I think I’ve read Middlemarch 4 times). But I’m not ready to give up on Bennett’s use of NV yet. There are short comments at the end of many passages that intrigue me , though I find them too pointed, For example, when Sophia sees Mr. Scales on the doorstep,” Real miracles never seem to be miracles, and that whihc at first blush resembles one usually proves to be an instance of the extremely prosaic” I love the first part of the sentence, but the ending seems to be blatantly warning us where this relationship is headed.

  4. The analogy is excellent; I thought the contrast between the excavation for the railway and possible start of a love interest was so juxtaposition; normally people go for a walk in the park! Sophia would have met Gerald anywhere !

    My other thoughts are:
    ” The stress of hunger the lower classes were forgetting their manners”. When hungry people forget refinement and eat quickly and with less care.
    ” When he smiled – he was heaven” and when he raised his hat ” Imagine a God raising his hat” This praise is overstated indicating Sophia may be in love.
    ” Constance’s perfect innocence” Overstated by Mrs Bains indicating a preference of one child over another.
    Mr Povey had aspirations towards Constance that were not reciprocated causing tension.
    “Bottom ghosts of subterranean miners” These are the ghosts of dead miners; when at the railway construction site.
    Sophia changed when she thought Gerald was going to touch her.
    When Aunt Harriet came ” Best silver and finest diaper” implying there were others not just one set of each..
    ” Ponderosity of Widows” what a great phrase, these ladies of Aunt Harriet and Mrs Bains must have difficult to be in company of when together.
    Mr Povey thought Aunt Harriet was “adding him up and reporting to Mrs Bains ” in her bedroom.
    “I’m not so blind as all that” was said to Mrs Bains regarding Sophia going to stay with Aunt Harriet. Constance did not have to go.
    Perhaps Mrs Bains did want Constance to find a man. When Mr Povey asks for her hand in Marriage ” He is a Nobody”

    Aunt Harriet thought Constance had written to Sophia each day. Not her so Sophia telegrams from Charing Cross ” Dear Mother I have married Gerald Scales ” So we have a love story. I think we now know who sent Sophia the Letters.

    Great reading the contrast when Constance and Mr Povey are together and Sophia and Gerald. One was love the other wishful thinking.

  5. The analogy is excellent; I thought the contrast between the excavation for the railway and possible start of a love interest was so juxtaposition; normally people go for a walk in the park! Sophia would have met Gerald anywhere !

    My other thoughts are:
    ” The stress of hunger the lower classes were forgetting their manners”. When hungry people forget refinement and eat quickly and with less care.
    ” When he smiled – he was heaven” and when he raised his hat ” Imagine a God raising his hat” This praise is overstated indicating Sophia may be in love.
    ” Constance’s perfect innocence” Overstated by Mrs Bains indicating a preference of one child over another.
    Mr Povey had aspirations towards Constance that were not reciprocated causing tension.
    “Bottom ghosts of subterranean miners” These are the ghosts of dead miners; when at the railway construction site.
    Sophia changed when she thought Gerald was going to touch her.
    When Aunt Harriet came ” Best silver and finest diaper” implying there were others not just one set of each..
    ” Ponderosity of Widows” what a great phrase, these ladies of Aunt Harriet and Mrs Bains must have difficult to be in company of when together.
    Mr Povey thought Aunt Harriet was “adding him up and reporting to Mrs Bains ” in her bedroom.
    “I’m not so blind as all that” was said to Mrs Bains regarding Sophia going to stay with Aunt Harriet. Constance did not have to go.
    Perhaps Mrs Bains did want Constance to find a man. When Mr Povey asks for her hand in Marriage ” He is a Nobody”

    Aunt Harriet thought Constance had written to Sophia each day. Not her so Sophia telegrams from Charing Cross ” Dear Mother I have married Gerald Scales ” So we have a love story. I think we now know who sent Sophia the Letters.

    Great reading the contrast when Constance and Mr Povey are together and Sophia and Gerald. One was love the other wishful thinking.

  6. I raced through book one yesterday and today. Was interested and entertained, but frequently kind of baffled by the tone — the irony is laid of thick, and the humor wobbles around so I’m not always sure how seriously I’m meant to take these people. Sometimes they’re people and sometimes Bennett renders them into ‘types’.

    • Yes–that’s the gist of Woolf’s criticism. Bennett and the other writers she called the Edwardians could only write types, not characters. Specifically, that they wrote character as a function of environment rather than as something that acts within and against their environment.

      • “An example of the way, the oddest details sear themselves into our attention at heightened moments”. I agree and think this is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. ( But also at moments that are more banal…) The phrase “immense, naive curiosity” also struck me as interesting – two adjectives separated by a comma (and not, “immensely naive”, and not” immense and naive”, and not “immense but naive, and not “immense naive curiosity”). Immense curiosity is a positive personality trait. Sophia is also a reader. “Naive” is a more negative trait. Alice Munro does similar things with adjectives and with Munro it is sometimes a way of introducing another narrative voice. “Naive” belonging to than main narrative voice, the one who predominates, and ‘Immense” belonging to another one. This would render Sophia more complex than simply a type. “He had forgotten she was a queen”: Bennett as a precursor for Free Indirect Speech technique is a very tempting explanation to what he is doing, and one I also identified. Thank-you Dorian for the photo. Thanks to you all for your comments.We go into each subsequent reading with new keys to understanding.

  7. Hello from sunny Provence. This is such fun. Such a good idea to discover an author and a novel in group like this. I’m enjoying it immensely. I am abiding by the rules. I have read the Bennett’s Preface, but not the comments in the Modern Library edition. I know very little about the literature of this era so it is really a discovery for me. I take notes as I go along. There are three things that struck me in this reading. The first that comes to mind is the theme of mobility or rather immobility: The word “stout” used many, many times to describe Mrs. Baines and her sister. Their physical movement rendered awkward by their increasing corpulence could be read in parallel with their limited geographical mobility. I also wonder if Bennett had read Freud. The repeated references to Sophia “killing her father”, and the fact that she, of all the main characters is very mobile, though limited in other ways. And the third aspect that has struck me is Bennett’s approach to gender. Mr. Povey’s tears sparked by his jealousy of Mr. Scales (something reptilian in that name?) when he finds him in conversation with Constance could simply be another ridiculous aspect of Mr. Povey, but it might not be. We shall see. I am not sure how we are to interpret the long description of Mr. Povey’s dedication to tickets (one of my favourite passages in these three chapters:
    “Mr. Povey had recently given attention to the question of tickets. It is not too much to say, that Mr. Povey, to whom heaven had granted a minimum share of imagination, had nevertheless discovered his little parcel of imagination in the recesses of being, and brought it effectively to bear on the tickets.”
    But there can be no doubt that his dedication to form and style in the conception and elaboration of the shape and the wording of the tickets makes him a more than respectable craftsman. But what seems to be an anal-retentive personality and the “little parcel of imagination”, is not a very promising indication of an ever-evolving social conscience. The place of the poor in the novel is also noteworthy. Bennet’s description of them is entirely void of caricature and I will be paying more attention to their appearance in the chapters that follow.

    p.s. In response to your comments to my last posting. Yes, yes, to Balzac and The Human Comedy, and yes, yes, to Maupassant for the biting precision in Bennett’s description our capacity for self delusion. Just one of the countless examples is at the church service:
    “Who would have supposed the gentle-eyed Constance, pattern of daughters, was risking her eternal welfare by smiling at the tailed one, who concealing his tail, had assumed the image of Mr. Povey? Who would have supposed that Mrs. Baines, instead of resolving that Jehovah and not the tailed one should have ultimate rule over her, was resolving that she and not Mr. Povey should have the ultimate rule over her house and shop? It was a pew-ful that belied its highly satisfactory appearance. (And possibly there were other pew-fuls.” I am absolutely not a specialist of Flaubert. I read Madame Bovary 45 years ago in French, and liked it very much. My interest in Flaubert was rekindled 6 years ago via Lydia Davis who is the most recent American translator of the novel and who I have read very closely. Davis explained that she hadn’t liked Madame Bovary as a teenager, but realized after reading the novel in French, that the translation by Steegmuller was so far off the but in regards to Flaubert’s style and syntax that she basically discovered another novel when she read it in French.
    p.p.s. I wasn’t quite sure where to post this. But I figured out that Banff1972 might be Dorian. I’ll read the comments after posting, as I might be influenced ( which I’m altogether prepared to be !)

  8. The novel’s point of view goes all over the place in certain scenes, zooming in and zooming out, often in the same paragraph. I’ve been thinking about the scene when Povey asks Mrs. Baines’ for her approval in marrying Constance. “He was deeply moved. He might have appeared somewhat grotesque to the strictly impartial observer of human nature. Nevertheless, he was deeply and genuinely moved, and possibly human nature could have shown nothing more human than Mr. Povey at the moment when, unable any longer to restrain the paroxysm which had so surprisingly overtaken him, he fled form the parlour, passionately, to the retreat of his bedroom.” That’s a lot of angles on Povey and in a very short period of time. The POV shifts confused me on what to feel or think about the characters. I don’t like Povey. But should I admire him a little after this paragraph? Who knows? Sophia’s storming off scene elicited a similar response. She’s ridiculous. But terrified and should be pitied? But too emotional? Eh.
    After noting the swift POV shifts in tense scenes, I can’t help but think emotional scenes are hard for Bennett as a writer. They aren’t comfortable for him: he admires his characters but he laughs at their absurdities and then goes back and forth for a little while on that. Admittedly, emotions are hard to write in fiction. Still though, it creates for a muddled response in the reader after all the surety in details, descriptions, and daily life that have been carefully layered around these oddball paragraphs.

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