“The Bully, Destiny”: Still More of The Old Wives’ Tale

After an unexpected and busy vacation across parts of the American West in which reading time was in short supply I returned home to The Old Wives’ Tale. Took me a minute to get my groove back, but I eventually found myself unable to stop and read straight through to the end. I promise not to reference the final chapters so that Rohan can have her say. (I will note, though, that I might have enjoyed writing about the book more if we’d finished it first, but I also realize I wouldn’t have paid attention to the earlier parts as much had we done so.) Anyway, I have a long section to cover, and I’ll just scrape the surface, so please add to the conversation in the comments.

Jean Béraud, Paris Kiosk, ca. 1880 – 1884

As I read about Sophia’s life after Gerald—how good that she has a life after Gerald, and what an interesting one it is!—I found myself struck by one passage in particular. Not an exciting one: no hoarding of food stuffs, no balloon rides to escape a besieged city, no business or sexual propositions, nothing like that. But to me it got at a central concern. It comes after Sophia—now proprietress and landlady of a successful boarding-house catering to English tourists in Paris, known to her guests as Mrs. Frensham, after the previous owner—has been approached by Matthew Peel-Swynnerton, scion of a Five Towns family and friend to Sophia’s nephew, Cyril Povey. Sophia suspects that Matthew has recognized her as the woman who ran away from Bursley thirty years ago. In the time it takes for each to twig to the other, the routines of years are overturned. Sophia retires to bed early, leaving her second-in-command to deal with the thousand details that must be managed for an establishment like Frensham’s to keep ticking along. Alone in her room, Sophia wonders if the elegant young man could really be acquainted with her family. He’s too young to know her sister’s husband. More to the point, isn’t he far too wealthy, far too important, far too socially-prestigious to have anything to do with the likes of the Poveys? Even the illness of her beloved poodle, Fossette (the novel’s greatest character) takes second place to the thoughts whirling through her head:

Moreover – a detail of which she had at first unaccountably failed to mark the significance – this Peel-Swynnerton was a friend of the Mr. Povey as to whom he had inquired … In that case it could not be the same Povey. Impossible that the Peels should be on terms of friendship with Samuel Povey or his connexions! But supposing after all they were! Supposing something utterly unanticipated and revolutionary had happened in the Five Towns!

Copying this passage now I notice the awkward syntax of the first sentence—mimicking, perhaps, Sophia’s flustered state. I realize too how typical it is that I would seize on a moment that references significance, and the failure of a first reading: fits the struggle I’ve been having to know what matters most in this book, what kind of significance it aims at. But what snagged me at the time, and what, reading on, I returned to again and again as a way to make sense of the novel’s concerns, was the word “revolutionary.” My first posts were preoccupied by the novel’s unstable tone, so I won’t belabor that topic here, but much hinges on how ironic we take that adjective to be.

The word choice could be a sign of Sophia’s irreducible Baines-ness, her provincialism, her lifelong alignment with the values of her childhood. When she returns to Staffordshire she herself broods over these concepts: both consciously kicking against the small-mindedness of a world that seems to her unchanged, and unconsciously manifesting similar traits by having lived in a small and unchanging Paris that has nothing to do with the elegance or cultural avant-gardism that intrigues someone like Doctor Stirling, whose love of Zola, for example, is not reciprocated by the woman who lived the events of his novels without really noticing them. On this reading, “revolutionary” would have to be ironic, the narrator poking fun at Sophia’s misguided sense of what counts as radical or extraordinary. We’d have to conclude that a social order in which Peels consort with Poveys would be a change, yes, but hardly a revolution.

And yet—for Peels to know Poveys is a big deal, even if the circumstance happened gradually, undramatically, such that one could never point to a single moment and say “then, that’s when this happened.” To demonstrate that change is inexorable—evolution in the strictly Darwinian sense, with no telos, no moral judgment: neither progress nor regression—becomes increasingly important to the novel as it comes to its conclusion. All of which is to say that I think we should take “revolutionary” straight: heartfelt on Sophia’s part and endorsed by the narrator.

As I thought more about it, I became convinced the word mattered a whole lot. The big question posed by Bennett in this novel is nothing less than: What is the meaning of revolution? A subset of related questions follows: Could the idea of a gradual revolution be anything other than an oxymoron? Is revolution a concept worth hanging on to, or should we discard it in favor of something else, perhaps simply change? What, in the end, changes in our lives? How much do we remain the people we always were? How much do we reinvent ourselves? How much do we slide into lives that our younger selves could never have imagined? It seems to me now that when Sophia, in that crucial encounter I wrote about earlier, drawing on the values of her upbringing and inflecting them with her own personality, first rejected and then accepted Gerald at the site of the old mine and the new railway (these standing as examples, and critiques, of progress), the novel was already staging a scene by which we could begin to ask such questions.

I snagged on the reference to revolution because I was surprised by the oblique, even casual way Bennett dealt with the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. I had guessed these would feature as prominently as the execution of the criminal that Rohan wrote about last time. But I see now that it makes sense that this relatively minor event would be of larger importance to this novel than the big ones of public history. The execution matters less for questions of justice and more for Gerald’s rather pathetic response, for the final wedge it drives between him and Sophia, for her realization that no one will take care of her but herself. Thus the war with Prussia and the subsequent insurrection appear as the stuff of rumours, fantasies, and speculation—the latter in two senses of the term, since Sophia begins making her fortune by scrounging the shops in order to buy low and sell high. I wouldn’t say the novel is dismissive of these events—the material struggle, pain, and loss is real—but it’s convinced that for most people (or at least for Sophia and the world she operates in) their effects are muffled, reduced to the pressing but local questions of where to sleep and what to eat. At times, Bennett employs an almost Flaubertian irony in the bathos by which History appears. Sophia notes the end of the Second Empire, for example, only in the “mechanical” observation that it is a lot easier for women to sit in a carriage now that crinolines have gone out of fashion.

But Bennett doesn’t just give us the “ordinary person’s” perspective on momentous events. He gives us Sophia’s. Which is governed by her upbringing and the Baines values that she never shakes, even as she seems to build a life so different from anything her family can understand. She, unlike her husband or like Chirac when he clings to the false rumour that the French have scored a decisive victory over Pussian forces, has no truck with the idea of sudden reversals, coups de théâtre that reverse a bad situation (whether in politics or in household finances). For Sophia, such thinking could only be a fantasy (which contributes to my sense that the book is imagining alternate ideas of revolution). Sophia doesn’t flee Paris when the Prussians encircle the city—not from her love for her adopted home but from beliefs that come straight from Staffordshire:

She ardently wished to be independent, to utilize on her own behalf the gifts of organization, foresight, common sense, and tenacity which she knew she possessed and which had lain idle. And she hated the idea of flight.

Ironic, that last line, given her absconding with Gerald, but the point of this section of the novel is that she never flew from anything, really. She is happy during the siege because “she had a purpose in life and was depending upon herself.” That self-reliance, which kicks into overdrive after her collapse and illness—and it’s fascinating how much she struggles to recognize what she owes to the women who saved her, whose life choices she cannot respect and whom she ultimately displaces—is her greatest strength. She names it “pride”, and it is the most noted continuity with her sister, her upbringing, and the whole world of the first part of the novel. Yet it is also a weakness, in that it keeps her from life, prevents her from getting entangled with others, which is often to the good (hard to see what would be gained from agreeing to the advances of men like Niepce or Carlier, and life with Chirac might well have been a less awful but still subordinating version of life with Gerald) but ultimately makes her somewhat brittle and self-satisfied. I need to hold my tongue and wait until Rohan writes about the very end before commenting more on how we’re asked to evaluate Sophia, when all is said and done, but confining myself to what we’ve read so far, I think the New Year’s scene with Chirac was brilliantly handled, delicately describing the pleasant fug of sensual pleasure to which Sophia might have succumbed/given herself, and her ultimate inability to do so. The right thing to do, but still a missed opportunity, a complication we are more permitted to see than Sophia is herself. (So interesting, just as an aside, how few good/decent men there are in this book. Maybe only Povey? What do you all think?)

Rejecting Chirac allows Sophia to accept a new career. But running a pension, especially one as big as Frensham’s, means a life of endless labour. Like the domestic labour that it transposes to the business realm, the work of organizing the cleaning and cooking and managing of dozens of tourists involves constant running just to stay still. (Teaching, the career Sophia was set on and regrets the loss of, constitutes a similar treadmill, though it offers more gratification in the sense that teachers see pupils develop and move on to other things.) The end result of all the changes in Sophia’s life—escaping Gerald via her interregnum as a landlady to owning Frenshams—is an odd kind of stasis. Which brings me again to the idea of change, and what it means in this novel. I don’t want to foreclose the idea of revolution, but I think Bennett is pointing to an idiosyncratic, gradual meaning of the term, in which the gradual abrasions of daily life lead to changes we can see, let alone understand, only in retrospect. Could one reason Woolf had it out for him was that, like her modernist fellows, she believed in the more conventional sense of revolution: rupture, trauma, human nature changing on or about a certain date?

I’ll end with a point of continuity in the novel that surprised me—and that might also speak to my uncertainty of what change means or does in this novel. Elephants! That first one who comes to an untimely end at the Fair was not just a bizarre one-off. The landlord of the restaurant where Chirac and Sophia have their New Year’s feast proudly tells them of a friend, a butcher, “who has bought the three elephants of the Jardin des Planes for twenty-seven thousand francs.” (Two really were killed for their meat.) Seventy pages later, Sophia, returned to England and reunited with Constance, looks out the train window and is surprised to see “two camels and an elephant in a field close to the line,” which her sister tells her is the central depot of Barnum’s circus, a source of civic pride because the location, so close to Bursley, is in the very middle of England (and “there can be only one middle”). It is fanciful, but I think elephants will return one more time, a mere echo, to be sure, but a striking one, late in the novel (this is the only forward glance I’ll allow myself) when a shock to Sophia is described as a “crude, spectacular shame… that the gallant creature should be so maltreated by the bully, destiny.” Sounds to me like all the poor elephants in this novel. And that resonant phrase, “the bully, destiny,” returns us to the question of change. Will the end of the novel vitiate the very possibility? Or will it ask us to redefine what we mean by it? Stay tuned for the moving conclusion of The Old Wives’ Tale

12 thoughts on ““The Bully, Destiny”: Still More of The Old Wives’ Tale

  1. 30 for dinner only only 2 or 3 wore Evening Dress ” did no flatter the lust of the eye ” a fabulous way of looking at it; as if ornate wear was needed. The room description is as if I was walking around it.

    I like how the character (Mathew Peel-Swynnerton) we are to like has superior table manners as if he is a lord. Bennett seeks his roots and advises he was descendant of earthenware manufacturers the compote; desert dish his firm made. Did not cater for cheap markets. My plate turning to check if made in Stoke on Trent is not quiet as good. My neighbour who is a potter advised lift a plate slightly and use a knife as mirror to see the name.

    Sadly we have racism when describing the Jewish gentlemen. This happens in Victorian books.

    Mathew realises who she is when he knew her name was Scales ; obviously Bursley will know on his return. It would be interesting to have known people realising she was doing well in Paris on her own.

    Mr Martin advises good wages and staff treated well. That is good as I assume most would pay less and dictate to staff.

    Sophia considered going back to Bursley but, was ashamed as she had stolen from Aunt Harriet. It would have pleased Constance if she would have gone back.

    Sophia gets paralysis due to worry and overwork and told to rest by a doctor. Constance writes and asks her to come home. She had written the day before due to crying. How sad; perhaps she is lonely!

    Mr Martin offers to buy Frensham’s for syndicate; Sophia sells up. The Pension is on Rue Lord Byron obviously Bennett admires him to have road named after

    in the Signal Sophia had sold her lodgings for 5 figures. Constance goes by train to Knype Station and not tram so she does not meet anyone. Her walk to the station is convoluted route so she meets no one.

    The description of Sophia’s dog as “the air of a decked Trollope” is funny. I laughed out loud when I read that!

    the loop line had most stations closed in 1960’s and today there is talk of reopening the stations. Nostalgic articles often talk about this line’

    I find it realistic Sophia thought the smoke was worse as it was due to more bottle kilns and factories all billowing smoke. The air act to clean up air had not come in force as the happened in 1956. Bottle kilns look like their name and are used to fire pottery. Today there are about 50 left . In the heyday there would have been about 250.

    Constance thought Sophia was superior to any Frenchwomen she had met. This is a kind thought.

    Sophia sees the butcher in Wedgwood Street is s disgrace to the ones in Paris.

    Sophia enjoyed being with Constance despite to foulness and provinciality of Bursley. The scale of places is not the same.

    I like the description of Sophia’s umbrella and she has to take it just in case. Perhaps to show off. Bennett is great at descriptions of ordinary items.

    Constance writes to Cyril each week. When Cyril does not write it perturbs her. Cyril said he was coming to Bursly but did not. Sophia sends a telegram and
    Cyril and he comes. Indicating he listens to her.

    Sophia persuades Constance to go to Buxton and they have fun. Which is great for Constance as her sciatica is not as bad. When Constance wants to go back ,
    Sophia realises she has behaved as Cyril did and she changes and they go home.

    Carolyn Ruane of Arnold Bennett Society.

  2. I have reread you comments and understand your oxymoron . I feel Bennett has Sophia as a heroin. Yes she has a good time with Gerald and a lavish lifestyle. The money she stole from Aunt Harriet and Gerald (hiding money in a skirt). This is important she only had a life because she stole. If she did not put money in the skirt she would have had to come home! Bennett does make comment on this. Sophia has an eye for business which is unexpected but , we need a story. This book is written again as if it is a serial. The only sub plot is Matthew Peel-Swynnerton would have recognised Sophia. If if he had told Sophia he knew who she was this would have been intersecting to discuss for Bennett.
    I await others thoughts as together we cover nearly all concepts; more than just one person’s thought. I have loved doing this. If you do this for other books please tell; I would love to join in.

  3. I’m fascinated by your meditation on ideas of revolution in the novel. I am bound to bring up Middlemarch here, which of course concludes with a beautiful paean to “unhistoric lives” and is built on a concept of the revolutionary significance of gradual change, not just social but moral. I think I agree that Bennett is insisting that revolutions can be very small scale and yet matter a lot, and that the small shifts in the Povey family’s standing really do matter. There’s nothing that unusual about historical fiction that puts the big events aside, though: I am not (yet) convinced that there’s something revolutionary in Bennett’s own treatment of these elements.

    I particularly appreciated the way Sophia actual remains so unchanged by her many years in France and is unable to join in or contribute really anything to other people’s inquiries or reminiscences about Paris because she didn’t engage at all with its possibilities. When I saw the title of the next chapter, first in our last installment, I felt very sad! But I haven’t read to the end yet (I am very dutiful about these things). I see your point about the advantage of knowing the whole book in order to write well about it – but I always justify assigning long novels in installments in my classes with that same point about paying attention to each piece as we go. Also, it means we are wondering about what *might* happen, imagining a range of paths for the novel, and once we know how things go, it is easy to lose sight of those lost (or refused) opportunities. One thing our slow pace has made me really conscious of is the longevity of the lives it chronicles – not that they literally live a really long time (I don’t know yet!) but that we are really walking alongside them for a long time. That gives resonance to some of those small “revolutionary” details too, I think.

    • As I reflect on what I wrote about this section, I too am unconvinced that Bennett is doing something unusual. It’s very similar, for example, to Flaubert’s take in SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION. I suppose I was thinking of Zola, who tends to go for the big political events, though they too are routinely ironized.

      Your description of MIDDLEMARCH (which I am sorely in need of re-reading!) was so helpful. Do you think Bennett could be taken as an heir of Eliot?

      And I also completely agree about the paying attention to the pieces idea (I do the same in my own classes!). I’ve always been so influenced by endings, though, and having that retrospective sense here made a difference for me. I found the last bit the best part and am very curious what you’ll have to say about it.

      But your point about the slowness as related to longevity is well taken. It’s interesting, too, to compare our own ideas of longevity with those of the late 19th/early 20th century. Neither woman really lives all that long, according to our own criteria, though each is old by the norms of the time.

      I hope you are going to write about the title, but I still find it very odd! Being a wife was hardly the most important thing to either woman!

  4. I had a good laugh on your comment about Fossette being the novel’s greatest character. She witnessed a great many things, that small dog.
    I’m conflicted about Sophia’s life (and her ending but that’s for later). She was so vivacious and lively and then she ended up working like a skivvy for a huge portion of her life. I fully understood her pride and drive in making a living for herself and she did a brilliant job turning her life around, but something vital was missed in the process. It’s more than going to the latest play in Paris or reading novels by Zola or having an affair with Chirac or anything else that she missed. Her living was entirely practical (and often miserly in how she worked herself and her servants extremely hard) and she became frozen in that narrow, practical world. It was also, however, a stable world and throughout her working life, I kept wondering if Bennett was saying, “once bourgeois, always bourgeois,”–only he preferred to note it as her strong Baines tendencies. In a strange way, she brought the small, confined spaces she grew up in with her to Paris. Maybe that’s not all that strange, but I’ve never seen it done so obviously over the span of such a large novel.

    • I still haven’t read to the end (tomorrow’s task!) but I share your disappointment that Sophia didn’t take off after her flight, first from home and then from Gerald. I really like your remark that she “brought the small confined spaces she grew up in with her to Paris”: she turns out to be much less of a foil to Constance than she seemed at first, and that does seem like it must be part of Bennett’s point, about family or childhood or social influences and how they shape us.

    • Nicely put, Catherine. Like Rohan, I especially like the point about how she brought her confined upbringing to Paris. And I also agree that the book’s real strength is its scope, that sense of lives lived.
      Not to get too much into the end, but I feel as though Bennett almost prefers Constance to Sophia, for the reasons you mention here. Do you think that’s right?

      • Good question, Dorian. I’m not sure. Constance’s half of the book dragged for me whereas I flew through the parts where Sophia was in Paris. I assumed Sophia was Bennett’s favorite while speeding through her chapters but when the last quarter of the book rolled around, I wasn’t so sure anymore. One thing I know for sure: the line, “God will not be mocked,” will be resonating through my head for some time whether I like it or not!

  5. I find your comments interesting especially on bourgeois or Bain’s trait . Perhaps he is saying family responsibility is the important point and to use what you have learned at a younger age through out life. She learnt hard work was crucial and that why shy was a skivvy.

  6. I have continued to read this novel with great enthusiasm. The great care and attention demanded by this Book Blog formula has built up great expectations for Sophia. Expectations, which have not been satisfied as we discover Sophia back in her old home town so unchanged, or rather changed in such a disappointingly sad way. I like the passage you chose Dorian as a key passage to the novel. You might know that in France there is an exercise demanded for students taking the ‘agrégation’- the extremely arduous competitive exam required for secondary school teaching. The exercise is called an ‘explication de texte’. A passage is extracted from the novel and the student is required to explain how that passage fits into the whole novel. This exercise is accompanied by the “dissertation”. Here one word is chosen, and the candidates discuss and explain on how this is a key concept in the novel. For “The Old Wives’ Tale” we could imagine a dissertation on the word “Revolution”, or even Revolution, Evolution and Convolution in The Old Wives’ Tale. But, I must agree with Rohan here. George Eliot is so masterful at portraying change that any comparison with Bennett in this domain is bound to have him drawing second place.
    One of the reasons is ellipses- the way Bennett sums up what has happened. Where Eliot takes the time to register the small changes, the reticence to change, the embracing of change, Bennett leaves this to the reader’s imagination. For example, after Gerald is firmly established as a colossal loser, the reader is required to imagine what their married life has been like.
    If I were to choose another term to “discuss and explain” it would be “Translation”. I was intrigued by the continual use of French syntax and the literal translation of French phrases throughout this section. Since it was firmly established that Sophia was fluent, why would there be such a continual pretense of French. The only conclusion I can come to is that it is Bennett’s way of showing how France was always lived in translation by Sophia. How could someone stay for so long in a country- all of her adult life – and not be changed. Even when her identity is changed to those around her it is a change to a British identity- serving a British clientele.
    I too had finished the novel, so I will keep my closing comments for the next installment. Like Carolyn I am so enjoying this. Dorian, if I had to grade your explication de texte . I would give you an A+.

    • Well, thank you, I appreciate the kind words! (Basically what I teach in my job is “explication de texte.”)

      Definitely agree that Bennett is no Eliot, but I like thinking of them together, which I hadn’t before Rohan’s comment. In the early sections of OLD WIVES I was reminded at times of D. H. Lawrence, but that comparison faded over time. (Not that Eliot and Lawrence are opposed–he revered her.)

      I started to write about the novel’s gallicisms but then gave up as it seemed unrelated to what I was most interested in, or, rather, I didn’t have the energy to figure out how it might be related. But it’s a striking–if at times irritating–aspect of the novel. Your thoughts about translation and how Sophia always lived her French life mediated through an irreducible Englishness are brilliant, though, and really helped me see this strategy of Bennett’s in a more compelling light. So thank you for that.

      I must say I loved that the novel pretty much ignores Gerald. I was preparing for a lot of awful behaviour, but then he just left and Sophia got on with things, and that was great. I really think men are a great disappointment in this novel (as, perhaps, in real life!)

      Thanks for these helpful comments!

  7. Back to you with much delay.( see my remarks on Rohan’s BLOG). How interesting that you teach “explication de textes “. I somehow figured you did when I read your comments on Bennett. I think it’s a wonderful exercise, but t is something I had never encountered during my B.A. studies in Canada. It was an extremely difficult task for me when I went back to my studies here in France in 1987. It is true that there are aspects of French theory that can suck the life out of a text. But I also think there are other aspects of it that have made me a more careful reader. I learned that a literary text did not necessarily have to be all about about me to be worthy of study.
    About the male characters in “The Old Wives’ Tale”, I don’t entirely agree that they were all a disappointment. What is disappointing is that they are only presented as types and then abandoned. Finally I have to agree with Virginia Woolf here. And don’t you sometimes just love an evil character? Sometimes so vital for catharsis, don’t you think? Think about Grandcourt in “Daniel Deronda” (my favourite George Eliot novel). I didn’t know Lawrence admired her so. Maybe I’ll have to give Lawrence another chance. Thanks again for all your comments. And thanks to all the readers who participated. I plan to read more of Bennett – but perhaps not right now.

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