“. . . humanity walks ever on a thin crust over terrific abysses.”
I’d never heard of Arnold Bennett or his novel The Old Wives’ Tale till my friend chose it for us to read and discuss. The Old Wives’ Tale focuses on two sisters in Northern England in the fictional “Five Towns” area. The oldest Constance is a practical, predictable yet strong woman, while Sophia is a vivacious beauty who pushes all the boundaries.
Their mother is much like Constance and faithful to conventions. Their father is bedridden, which means the family’s welfare depends on the mother running the business, a drapery store.
The story starts with the girls in their teens. Despite their different personalities, they get along for the most part. Sophia yearns for romance and excitement, while Constance is satisfied with working in the family store and living a standard middle class life. When their father dies and Sophia runs off with a dapper traveling salesman, the story takes off.
A keen observer, Bennett fills the novel with insights that make readers think, “Yes, people are like that, even today.” Although there are many stories of bourgeois life or of the prodigal who runs off, Bennett’s characters experience surprises till the bitter end. His characters, even minor ones, are alive and worthy of respect and sympathy. I’m happy to say I’ve found another author I’ll read more of.
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