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The Old Wives' Tale (1908)

by Arnold Bennett

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Five Towns Series (5)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,4672510,279 (3.88)119
This novel about the divergent lives of two sisters which spans the Victorian and Edwardian periods is a 20th-century classic. Recently included in the list of the greatest 20th-century novels.
  1. 10
    The Easter Parade by Richard Yates (bluepiano)
    bluepiano: One's a fat early 20th-century English novel and the other a spare modern American one but both recount the lives of two sisters, one of whom settles into domesticity and one of whom goes further afield to lead an apparently more eventful life. And more strikingly both boooks leave the reader with a great sense of sadness because both Bennett and Yates convey so overwhelming a sense of the transience and smallness of a life.… (more)
  2. 10
    A Kingdom: 35 (Library of Wales) by James Hanley (bluepiano)
    bluepiano: A good novel about the very different lives of two very different sisters in rural Wales. One leaves home, one stays there.
  3. 00
    Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton (starbox)

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» See also 119 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Victorian novel set in the pottery district of Staffordshire and France during the Siege of Paris. ( )
  SylviaMurray | Aug 5, 2020 |
[From Great Modern Reading, ed. W. Somerset Maugham, Doubleday, 1943, p. 526:]

But I should say that of all the novels that have been published during this century in England, the one that has the best chance of survival is Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale. To anyone who hasn’t read it, I say read it; and to anyone who has read it, I say, read it again. That is a real novel.

[From The Vagrant Mood [1952], Doubleday, 1953, “Some Novelists I Have Known”, pp. 235-43:]

I left Paris after a year or so [1905] and lost touch with him. He wrote one or two books which I did not read. The Stage Society produced a play of his which I liked. I wrote and told him so and he wrote to thank me and in the course of his letter laid out the critics who had not thought so well of the play as I had. I can’t remember whether it was before or after this that The Old Wives’ Tale was published. I began reading it with misgiving, but this quickly changed to astonishment. I had never supposed that Arnold could write anything so good. I was deeply impressed. I thought it a great book. I have read many appreciations of it, and I think everything has been said but one thing, which is that it is eminently readable. I should not mention a merit that is so obvious except that many great books do not possess it. It is the novelist’s most precious gift, and it is one that Arnold had even in his slightest and most trivial pieces. I have of late read The Old Wives’ Tale again. Though written in rather a drab style, with an occasional use of “literatese” which gives you a jolt, and without elegance, it is still extremely readable. The characters ring true: they are not intrinsically interesting, it was not to Arnold’s purpose to make them brilliant, and it is a mark of his skill that, notwithstanding, you follow their fortunes with interest and sympathy. Their motives are plausible and they behave as from what you know of them you would expect them to behave. The incidents are completely probable: Sophia is in Paris during the siege and the Commune; an author less determined to avoid the sensational would have looked upon it as an opportunity, by describing scenes of terror, anguish and bloodshed, to give his narrative a lift. Not Arnold. Sophia goes about her business unperturbed; she looks after her lodgers, buys and hoards food, makes money when she can, and in fact conducts herself precisely as of course the great mass of the people did.


For many years, what with one thing and another, I do not think I met Arnold, or if I did it was only at a party, literary or otherwise, at which I had the opportunity to say no more than a few words to him; but after the First World War and until his death I saw him frequently. By this time he had become a “character.” He was very different from the thin, rather insignificant man that I had known in Paris. He had grown stout. His hair, very grey, was worn long and he had cultivated the amusing cock’s comb that the caricaturists made famous. He walked with an arrogant strut, his back arched and his head thrown back. He had always been neat in his dress, disconcertingly even, but now he was grand.


But it was not only in appearance that Arnold differed from the man I had known before. Life had changed him. I think it possible that when I first knew him he was hampered by a certain diffidence and his bumptiousness was assumed to conceal it. Success had given him confidence. It had certainly mellowed him. He had acquired a
proper assurance of his own merit. He told me once that there were only two novels written during the first twenty years of the century that he was confident would survive and one of them was The Old Wives’ Tale. It may be that he was right. That depends on the whirligig of taste. Realism is a fashion that comes and goes. When readers ask their novels to give them fantasy, romance, excitement, suspense, surprise, they will find Arnold’s masterpiece pedestrian and rather dull. When the pendulum swings back and they want homely truth, verisimilitude, good sense and sympathetic delineation of character they will find it in The Old Wives’ Tale.


The Old Wives’ Tale is certainly the best book he wrote. He never lost the desire to write another as good and because it was written by an effort of will he thought he could repeat it. He tried in Clayhanger, and for a time it looked as though he might succeed. I think he failed only because his material fizzled out. After The Old Wives’ Tale he had not enough left to complete the vast structure he had designed. No writer can get more than a certain amount of ore out of one seam; when he has got that, though it remains, miraculously, as rich as before, it is only others who can profitably work it. Arnold tried again in Lord Raingo, and he tried for the last time in Imperial Palace. In this I think the subject was at fault. Because it profoundly interested him he thought it was of universal interest. He gathered his data systematically, but they were jotted down in note-books and not garnered (as were those of The Old Wives’ Tale) unconsciously, and preserved, not in black and white, but as old memories in his bones, in his nerves, in his heart. But that Arnold should have spent the last of his energy and determination on the description of an hotel seems to me to have symbolic significance. For I feel that he was never quite at home in the world. It was to him perhaps a sumptuous hotel, with marble bathrooms and a perfect cuisine, in which he was a transient guest. I feel that he was, here among men, impressed, delighted, but a little afraid of doing the wrong thing and never entirely at his ease. Just as his little apartment in the Rue de Calais years before had suggested to me a part played carefully, but from the outside, I feel that to him life was a role that he played conscientiously, and with ability, but into the skin of which he never quite got.

I remember that once, beating his knee with his clenched fist to force the words from his writhing lips, he said: “I am a nice man.” He was.

[From The Summing Up, Heinemann, 1938, Chapter XLVIII:]

Success besides often bears within itself the seed of destruction, for it may very well cut the author off from the material that was its occasion. He enters a new world. He is made much of. He must be almost super-human if he is not captivated by the notice taken of him by the great and remains insensible to the attentions of beautiful women. He grows accustomed to another way of life, probably more luxurious than that which he has been used, and to people who have more of the social graces than those with whom he has consorted before. They are more intellectual and their superficial brilliance is engaging. How difficult it is for him then to move freely still in the circles with which he has been familiar and which have given him his subjects! His success has changed him in the eyes of his old associates and they are no longer at home with him. They may look upon him with envy or with admiration, but no longer as one of themselves. The new world into which his success has brought him excites his imagination and he writes about it; but he sees it from the outside and can never so penetrate it as to become a part of it. No better example of this can be given than Arnold Bennett. He never knew anything intimately but the life of the Five Towns in which he had been born and bred, and it was only when he dealt with them that his work had character. When success brought him into the society of literary people, rich men and smart women, and he sought to deal with them, what he wrote was worthless. Success destroyed him.
3 vote WSMaugham | Oct 2, 2019 |
Another classic that I thoroughly enjoyed, although not all the way through. I think it made a difference that I am older and could identify with some of the preoccupations of the protaganists (the are widows btw, not spinsters, which is what I was expecting, possibly foolishly) Bennett uncannily captures the emotions and thought processes of people (not just women) - his description of a young woman falling in love/lust is faultless. Much more candid than one is lead to expect from Victorian novels (I haven't read many, not even all of Dickens - is that a terrible confession?) Ultimately though, the greatest interest for me was the description of retail and trade in a small Midlands town - loads of notes made for the research I shall ... one day ... carry out! Zola's novels are often cited as excellent sources in this field, but I think this is just as useful and fascinating. ( )
  Deborahrs | Apr 15, 2017 |
I don't really know what to say about this book. It was easy to read and kept my interest throughout; some passages were humorously sarcastic (I wish there had been more of these!). Despite the title, it is really the story of the lives of 2 sisters from teen years until their deaths. Constance and Sophia would have been contemporaries of Meg and Jo in Little Women so it is interesting to see the similarities & differences due to their different settings. One thing that struck me in the early parts of the book was how teenaged girls haven't changed much in 150 years! ( )
1 vote leslie.98 | Jun 2, 2016 |
Wonderful book! The simple telling of lives lived, actions taken, regrets, and contentment with life. All about the passage of time, this book relates the lives of two sisters over the course of about 70 years. Excellent read.

"What affected her was that he had once been young, and that he had grown old, and was now dead. That was all. Youth and vigour had come to that. Youth and vigour always come to that. Everything came to that." ( )
  Oodles | Feb 16, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Arnold Bennettprimary authorall editionscalculated
Wain, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Those two girls, Constance and Sopha Baines, paid no heed to the manifold interest of their situation, of which, indeed, they had never been conscious.
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This novel about the divergent lives of two sisters which spans the Victorian and Edwardian periods is a 20th-century classic. Recently included in the list of the greatest 20th-century novels.

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