Lost Causes: More The Old Wives’ Tale

Here we are, halfway through The Old Wives’ Tale and I still have no idea what to make of this book, or even what kind of a book it is.

My very reading experience is odd. I seldom find myself gripped by any particular moment, but I’m delighted by how often the book surprises me. Like Rohan who wrote similarly in a comment to her last post, I expected neither Daniel’s significance nor Cyril’s development into an aesthete. Is “development” the right word? Time and again, the novel ignores or downplays process, jumping ahead or passing by in a single sentence events that other novels might linger over. Consider, for example, how offhandedly Mrs. Baines is dispatched in comparison to the heartrending death of Gertrude Morel, also of cancer, in Sons and Lovers. (The books, published only two years apart, depict a similar Edwardian world, poised between the rural and the industrial.) For a novel so interested in observing social and technological change (the coming railways, the rise of advertising, the shifts in fashion which, for example, deprive Constance of a waist), The Old Wives’ Tale doesn’t seem to think of character or personality as particularly developmental.

Take the example of Cyril. Perhaps retrospectively we can see the seeds of Cyril’s aestheticism in his infant interest (or, rather, the narrator’s interest in his interest) in perception. But I’m unconvinced Cyril’s current interests will be anything more than a fad, and I don’t know how to reconcile his dandyism with his placid robustness. (Think of his decidedly non-finicky interest in food.) Maybe the relationship between the boy’s past and present is meant to be ironic. Hard to say because we aren’t given much help in figuring out how the book feels about present-day Cyril. (Is Dandy Cyril a better Cyril? Worse? Neither?) Maybe Cyril is going to become one of England’s great artists. Or maybe he will lose interest in art and find a different path. Or maybe he won’t even be in the novel anymore. Who knows? That said, I suspect he will not become an artist-hero like Lawrence’s Paul Morel. I suppose what I’m grappling with is that The Old Wives’ Tale has elements of the Bildungsroman (whether its heroes are the sisters or the child or someone else) without actually seeming to be one.

There is, however, at least one topic towards which novel’s attitude is clearer: the relationship between generations. In my previous post I noted the surprisingly violent antagonism in the scenes between Mrs. Baines and her young daughters. By the time we reach Constance and Cyril, things have calmed down a bit, at least on Cyril’s side. But that might just be because we don’t often get inside his head. It’s true that Sophia was much more violent than Constance, who at first seems governed by a fitting placidity. But Constance too coolly struck a blow against her mother when she accepted Povey, and she certainly feels keenly the pain—it’s presented as a kind of anguish—of her child’s moving away and perhaps beyond her. What she doesn’t seem to see—but which we can, noting the patterns Bennett gives us, especially his way of structuring chapters and sections so that they end with dramatic changes that are seldom described in detail—is a pattern. What she did to her mother, her son is doing to her. I think the point is that such antagonism (the callousness of youth) is to be expected, as is the surprise when the former child now adult gets what they once dished out, as is the reality of the pain that accompanies it at least from the parent’s perspective. I was moved by the description of Constance returning home from seeing Cyril off to London, full of sorrow but perhaps also the lugubrious satisfaction of being able to declare one’s self useless, and looking into the boy’s room:

And through the desolating atmosphere of reaction after a terrific crisis, she marched directly upstairs, entered his plundered room, and beheld the disorder of the bed in which he had slept.

Typical Cyril, leaving the bed unmade on his last day at home. A bit of a thrown gauntlet, too. What is more immoral in the Baines/Povey household than “disorder”? What gets me most here, though, is that adjective “plundered,” which encapsulates her desolation. Cyril has stolen before, let’s not forget. Here’s he’s literally and metaphorically taken what he needs and lit out for the big city.

Yet change (a child leaving home, say) isn’t development, even if it sometimes is regular or predictable. So it’s still unclear to me where Bennett is going with this notion. Even when he offers us clear patterns and repetitions he’s hard to read. Take the juxtaposition of the chapters “Crime” and “Another Crime.” A joke, right? Surely Cyril’s petty theft isn’t comparable to Daniel’s murder. But they are similar in having a strong, though not identical, effect on Povey. Each challenges Povey’s complacent world-view, though in the first case he is able to smooth over the disorder, able through his will-power and action to restore the world to its satisfactory functioning, which he cannot do in the second.

The Daniel plot-line is fascinating. A whole Zola novel hiding in plain sight. I’m imagining how luridly and/or excitingly Daniel’s story could be told. Bennett instead chooses indirection, keeping the focus on Povey. What matters is how Samuel responds, not what Daniel feels. (Is it remorse? Resignation? Anger? I wanted to know! What do you think? Why doesn’t Bennett tell us? That is, how does his decision shape the novel we have? Does the novel’s utter indifference to the murdered woman–slatternly, disgraceful, and that’s the end of it–affect how we understand how it portrays Constance and Sophia?) Povey’s belief that the good people who make up the moral majority of the Five Towns can do no wrong is shattered when his respected and respectable cousin commits murder. The challenge is especially severe because it comes from the state. (It will be interesting to compare—as I suspect we will be asked to—how the French handle violent transgressions.) I had to laugh in appreciation of Bennett’s skill in describing how easily citizens will fall in line with the power of the law, even if it means contradicting themselves:

They [Samuel and others who believed in Daniel’s innocence] talked as if they had always foreseen [a guilty verdict], directly contradicting all that they had said on only the previous day. Without any sense of inconsistency or shame, they took up an absolutely new position. The structure of blind faith had once again crumbled at the assault of realities, and unhealthy, un-English truths, the statement of which would have meant ostracism twenty-four hours earlier, became suddenly the platitudes of the Square and the market-place.

Povey’s death, too clearly foreshadowed to stand as another instance of the unpredictability of human mortality (like, say, Aunt Hester or Mrs. Baines’s deaths), feels to me like a commentary on the man’s inability to reconcile the contradiction between his beliefs—Daniel did a bad thing, but he was provoked; he should be punished, but not to the fullest extent of the law—and the conclusions the authorities of the nation he also believes in come to. In this sense, Povey seems to die from being disabused of long-held beliefs. Is that tragic? Farcical? Again, I can’t say, partly of course because there’s still 300 pages to go, but partly because the novel’s take on events continues to be hard to interpret. I am all the more puzzled because it is at this moment that an unsuspected and hitherto unseen first-person voice appears:

A casual death, scarce noticed in the reaction after the great febrile demonstration! Besides, Samuel Povey never could impose himself on the burgesses. He lacked individuality. He was little. I have often laughed at Samuel Povey. But I liked and respected him. He was a very honest man. I have always been glad to think that, at the end of his life, destiny took hold of him and displayed, to the observant, the vein of greatness which runs through every soul without exception. He embraced a cause, lost it, and died of it.

If destiny takes hold of everyone, though presumably never quite the same way twice, then this is a backhanded appreciation of Povey, who is great only in the way that everyone is. (Although maybe no greater appreciation can be imagined?) I’m not so sure the narrator has done laughing at Samuel Povey. And who is this I? Someone like Bennett? If so, he would here appear in the guise of as one who can only record, never invent, the fates of the figures who appear in the text. Or is the I someone like us, as readers? I should say me, I suppose. I don’t know about you, but I felt a twinge of guilt as I recognized myself in that description: I have often laughed at Samuel Povey. But I do like him, yes, even, in his way, respect him. Maybe I should stop laughing. Maybe I should admire his fatal embrace of a lost cause. But I don’t, quite. I don’t trust the text not to be fooling me here, too…

PS: At some point we have to talk about old wives’ tales. Are there any in the book? Why is it called that?

9 thoughts on “Lost Causes: More The Old Wives’ Tale

  1. I loved the comment ” In that instant the conviction that Cyril was permanently unfit for human society expired in the father’s mind”. When Cyril came to wake his father quietly when mud was thrown at the window. Cyril told to go back to his room as “conspirator to conspirator “.

    Cousin Daniel comes as wife in drink and son ill. No food for son or sheets aired. Son falls on stairs and breaks knee.
    It transpires Daniel has choked wife to death. She was “a dishonour of her sex;….”she was dirty and dirty” ; a contrast to neat husband. She will never drink brandy again.

    Police called and he is arrested. Daniel is no murderer as wife’s death was a simply mishap.

    Samuel attends Stafford Assizes for trial. Magistrate ( described as ” week humanity sought to have been a General of the order of Jesuits”) comments are amusing and manner is odd almost comical but for seriousness of case.
    Petition to guilty verdict shows great community spirit with the thousands of signatures obtained. Cyril earns fifteen shillings for getting hundreds of them.

    Band played Handel’s Death March for parade once news he is hung. Said to be 7 or 8 thousand in town of Bursley.

    Samuel dies of toxaemia caused by a “heart that would not do its duty by blood (heart attack). He had few things; he would not take her father’s gold watch when he had a silver one that worked and kept good time. Cyril to have this when 21.

    Maggie Mr Hollins daughter asked for a funeral card.

    Description of Mr Critchlow was great as looking at a portrait of him.

    Cyril head designer at Peel’s Earthenware and wins national scholarship; great for Bursley School of Art for a drinking cup. He goes to London for free tuition and £1 a week. No scholarship won for 11 years.

    Constance asks to go with him. NO!

    I love Bennett’s descriptions as they are so evocative .

    Looking to reading about Sophia next.

    Carolyn Arnold Bennett Society.

  2. I wonder if what you and I are both struggling with as we try to fit pieces of the novel together is genre: for instance, as you say, there are signs of development but the novel is not structured around them, so the novel is clearly not THAT kind of novel; there are elements that fit into novels of social critique, even ‘condition of England’ tropes, but overall it does not seem to be THAT kind of novel; it’s not a marriage plot novel; etc. It reminds me of my disorientation reading the novels by the ‘Somerville novelists,’ also early 20thC novelists whose work kind of fell off the radar (critically, academically); our professional habits were built on different foundations and maybe some kinds of framing are just hard for us to get that might have made more sense in the moment. Reading, say, Margaret Kennedy I often felt I just didn’t know quite what questions to ask of the novels to get the best answers, if you know what I mean. Criticism is so much about trying different lenses until you find ones that bring aspects of the text into focus, and with Bennett I can’t seem to find the ones that do that.

    Issues of point of view seem so important for that whole section about the murder. I was shocked at the callousness of the community towards the victim and at Povey’s total commitment to Daniel’s side, and I found it difficult to be sure where the novel was positioning us about this. I really like your point about the community’s inconsistency; do you think the whole episode is a way of criticizing that society? And yes, that sudden intrusion of the first-person narrator completely surprised me. Artless / random? Meaningful?

    I’m enjoying the novel quite a lot partly because of how surprising it keeps being. I like this feeling of disorientation! I don’t know (yet) what that means for an evaluation of the novel’s merits.

    • I’m trying to enjoy the disorientation (which is really something) without pivoting too quickly to evaluation, though I’m having a hard time!

      Do I think the novel is criticizing the community’s inconsistency? I don’t know! I think so, yes, on balance, and that might fit with some of the stuff at the beginning about how modern folks in the 1860s felt themselves to be, and how similarly foolishly we think ourselves as even more modern…

      It’s not Trollope’s irony, though, is it?

      Excellent and helpful points about genre and expectations and critical lenses. I’ve yet to read the Somerville novelists (other than your thoughts about them) but I can see what you mean. I wonder if there was ever a time when critics felt they had a handle on Bennett. Was he ever much read by “professional” readers?

      I wonder if that first-person narrator is a one-off, or if it will return in the Paris sections.

  3. Thanks again for all these helpful reflections. I too like the surprises. And I totally agree that the way Bennett surprises us leaves us in the lurch when it comes to pinning down a genre. The biggest surprise in what I thought might be a continuing relationship between Daniel and Samuel, was, as you so wonderfully put it Dorian, a whole Zola novel hiding in complete sight” – and in just a few pages !
    There is quite a bit of nakedness in these first pages of this week’s reading. Dick- found naked on the stairs. And the naked bakers: “Never before had he penetrated so far into his cousin’s secrets. On the left, within the doorway, were the stairs, dark; on the right a shut door; and in front an open door giving on to a yard. At the extremity of the yard he discerned a building, vaguely lit, and naked figures strangely moving in it.”
    I kept coming back to this part when trying to figure out Samuel’s descent into hell. Because we could interpret this “apparition” as it is called, of naked bakers before their ovens an image of hell. And then I went back to last week’s section which I had interpreted as Mr. Povey’s spiritual awakening. But, already, last week, I was interpolated by the fact that as Samuel had stood there gazing over the town, he said “I’m damned. I’m damned”. And not ‘Well, I’ll be damned”, which you could interpret as “Who would have thought?”. So Daniel’s role finally was to plunge Samuel into monomania, and sickness, hysteria and death. Again, though we have more details on his illness than for Aunt Harriet or Mrs. Baines, his death too is slipped into a sentence: “He survived the crisis of the disease and then died of toxemia, cause by a heart that would not do its duty by the blood.” Isn’t this an interesting sentence? Because, in another sense, Mr. Povey’s heart did in fact go over and beyond its duty when it came to blood relations. And who indeed is this narrative “I’ who crops up? The one who comes straight out by telling that he liked and respected him. Who detected ‘the vein of greatness which runs through very soul without exception.” Hmmmmm. Does this narrative “I” really think this is true of all his characters? For this to be true, there will have to be a great deal of amazing surprises in the pages to come.
    I must admit I am disappointed about how Constance, a wealthy widow is evolving in the rest of this section’s reading. But what I’m also discovering as we progress in our reading is a “Tout et son contraire” motif used to describe Flaubert. For example Constance’s reflection on her husband : “The vision of him in his coffin – there in the churchyard, just at the end of King Street! – with the lid screwed down on that unimportant beard, recurred frequently in the mind of the widow, as something untrue and misleading. She had to say to herself: Yes, he is really there! And that is why I have this peculiar feeling in my heart. She saw him as an object pathetic and wistful, not majestic. And yet she genuinely thought that there could not exist another husband quite so honest, quite so just, quite so reliable, quite so good as Samuel had been.”
    Again an enumeration with the degree adverb “so”, but further qualified by “quite”. There can be no doubt of the sincerity of this thought – completely contrary to the reflection that went before.
    I don’t know what to make of Cyril He’s still insufferable, and Constance is spoiling him. But what to make of his artistic bend? Is the insufferableness simply a case of “Boys will be boys?”
    And last but not least Mr Critchlow and Miss Insull – a formidable couple if there ever was one. A final description which intrigues me. It’s of Miss Insull:
    “She was honest, capable, and industrious. and beyond the confines of her occupation she had no curiosity. no ideas. Superstitions and prejudices, deep and violent, served her for ideas; […] No one knew anything about her, because there was nothing to know. Subtract the shop assistant from her , and naught remained. Benighted and spiritually dead, she existed by habit.”
    Again “tout et son contraire”. And a character who has just taken over the shop with her new husband , gifted with superstitions and prejudices, deep and violent”, seem to me to be pretty meaty qualities for a plot. But who knows? We’ve been surprised before.

    • Lynn, these thoughts are so interesting–thank you for sharing!

      “Mr. Povey’s heart did in fact go over and beyond its duty when it came to blood relations”–you put this so well; I hadn’t made the connection before but it makes absolute sense,

      Glad you bring up Insull and Critchlow, who I unfairly neglected in my post. Agree that these two could become important, and possibly ominous, characters in the developing plot. But they might not! I would think Bennett is going to bring the two sisters together again at the end, but I should be wary of predictions by now…

      I was just reflecting on Constance before re-reading your comments–like you (I think) I’m disappointed that she remains so shadowy in the novel. The dark horse role suited her so well at first, but I kept wanting her to shake that off. It;s weird, she’s actually in the first half of the book a lot, but when I think back on it I seldom think of her…

  4. Pingback: “The Bully, Destiny”: Still More of The Old Wives’ Tale | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

  5. Pingback: What I Read, July 2021 | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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