“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

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?