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The Old Wives' Tale (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 31 May 2007
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First published in 1908, "The Old Wives' Tale" affirms the integrity of ordinary lives as it tells the story of the Baines sisters - shy, retiring Constance and defiant, romantic Sophia - over the course of nearly half a century. Bennett traces the sisters' lives from childhood in their father's drapery shop in provincial Bursley, England, during the mid-Victorian era, through their married lives, to the modern industrial age, when they are reunited as old women. The setting moves from the Five Towns of Staffordshire to exotic and cosmopolitan Paris, while the action moves from the subdued domestic routine of the Baines household to the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War.
About the Author
Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was one of the most versatile, ambitious and successful British novelists of the early 20th century. His novels and short stories both celebrate and deplore a rapidly changing Britain. Much of his greatest work is set where he grew up, in the Potteries of the West Midlands. Inspired by Zola and Maupassant, he realized that this world of brutal industrial work and rapid social change, religious severity and material temptation, was the perfect backdrop for everything from comedy to tragedy. He died of typhoid.
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The local period detail of Bursley, one of ‘the five towns’ is, eventually, engrossing, as is the wider historical perspective of the German siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 – 1871. Bennett’s irony is at its best in his observations of the latter, in the light of his character’s almost total ignorance of what is happening at the end of the Parisian street she lives in.
The tale largely follows the lives of the Baines sisters. One stays put in Bursley and one finds herself transplanted by unforeseen circumstance to Paris and a personal history that demands an impressive level of ingenuity and business acumen in order for her to survive her fate. Each of the sisters sees the world from an entirely individual viewpoint, which begins with youthful positivity and ambition and develops by stages to a more reflective evaluation of what has come to pass.
What kept me gripped was the episodic nature of the story – Bennett leads his reader an interesting dance. I also loved the skilled depiction of Bursley – the gradual breaking up of its traditions and the dawning of industrialisation. And finally, the sheer likeability of the sisters with their underlying empathy for each other despite their very substantial differences.
Note: Like many classics, this book is free for kindle.
Bennett is a master creating credible but colourful characters in everyday settings that everyone can relate to. He is also adept at the sudden twist and shock in the plot.
As ever the only disappointment from the book is when you finish reading it - the characters will have become so alive for the reader.