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?

“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!