17. The Old Wives’ Tale, Arnold Bennett (1908)

I consider Arnold Bennett to be the most underrated of all English novelists, and The Old Wives’ Tale to be one of the great undiscovered (or ‘underdiscovered’) masterpieces of twentieth century literature. Bennett was despised by the Bloomsbury group, particularly Virginia Woolf, who thought him conservative and vulgar; his popularity made him a figure of envy and ridicule amongst the Modernists. Obviously he’s got much more in common with Trollope, Thackeray and Dickens than he does with Joyce or Woolf herself – but he was also very much influenced by French writers, particularly Maupassant, and this the ‘Frenchest’ of all his books, with some of the most powerful sections set in Paris. The Old Wives’ Tale is the story of two sisters, Sophia and Constance Baines, their contrasting characters and destinies, their estrangement and final reunion in old age. In the course of the book they run the whole gamut of experiences open to women of that period, and the final section is deeply moving. The prose is breathtakingly good, the characterisation powerful and the subject matter (particularly in the Paris sections) unflinching. Bennett will never be fashionable: he represents a type of prosperous, worldly-wise English gentleman, and obviously that’s just not very cool. But only a fool would dismiss him for that –and it’s worth pointing out that Bennett, unlike the pampered denizens of Bloomsbury, actually wrote to make a living.

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2 Comments

Filed under My top 100 novels

2 responses to “17. The Old Wives’ Tale, Arnold Bennett (1908)

  1. David Benedict

    Fascinating. Never read him. (I know, I know…) Thank you.

  2. Oh DB you’re in for a treat!!!!

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