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.
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…