The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett Analysis

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Bursley

Bursley. English town in which the Baines sisters live and die. Arnold Bennett adapted the name “Bursley” from that of the real town of Burslem, which is located in Staffordshire in the English Midlands, between Liverpool and London—the region in which he was born. The area around Bennett’s Stoke-on-Trent birthplace was known as the Potteries because its towns were famous for producing the clay and craft associated with the production of fine Wedgewood and Staffordshire china and earthenware. Such other Bennett novels as Anna of the Five Towns (1902) and The Clayhanger (1910) also use Bursley as their primary locations. Known collectively as the “Five Towns” novels, these books gave Bennett’s London readers a sense that they were being exposed to life in a place and a town that they would never visit. This gives the novel a documentary quality as well as a strong sense of regional realism.

In The Old Wives’ Tale, the central goal of the Baines sisters, who are teenagers when the novel opens, is to leave Bursley. Constance, however, does not leave; instead, she marries Samuel Povey, becomes a mother of sons and inherits and manages the family dry goods store. Sophia elopes with a traveling salesman, Gerald Scales, who abandons her in Paris. At the end of their lives, they reunite in Bursley, live together in their family’s home, and die there within a brief time.

When Sophia finally returns to Bursley from Paris, she finds her hometown dirtier, smaller, smokier, and more insular than she remembers it to have been. In contrast, her sister “Constance did not appear to realize the awful conditions of dirt, decay and provinciality in which she was living.” Sophia feels that it would kill her to have to live there again: “It’s deadening. It weighs on you.” At the same time, however, Sophia realizes that she has been haunted by Bursley her whole life as “she had always compared France disadvantageously with...

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The Old Wives' Tale Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Broomfield, Olga R. Q. Arnold Bennett. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Bennett considered The Old Wives’ Tale a masterpiece. The book demonstrates that in the emotional lives of individuals, the degrees of comedy and tragedy are relative to the characters’ perceptions of their experience.

Fromm, Gloria G. “Remythologizing Arnold Bennett.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 16, no. 1 (Fall, 1982): 19-34. Discusses Virginia Woolf’s criticism, which had a devastating effect on Bennett’s reputation. Argues that Woolf missed his assertion that there is no escaping expression of the self, no matter how skillful a writer may be.

Lucas, John. Arnold Bennett: A Study of His Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1974. Asserts that Guy de Maupassant’s cynicism influenced Bennett’s portrayal of Constance. Bennett considered The Old Wives’ Tale an important demonstration of his seriousness as a writer.

Meckier, Jerome. “Distortion Versus Revaluation: Three Twentieth-Century Responses to Victorian Fiction.” Victorian Newsletter 73 (Spring, 1988): 3-8. Suggests that The Old Wives’ Tale is a criticism of the cynicism found in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848). Bennett drew more joy than Thackeray did from the secular world.

Roby, Kinley E. A Writer at War: Arnold Bennett, 1914-1918. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. The Old Wives’ Tale, which shows no meaning in the lives of its characters, anticipates a major theme of twentieth century British and American literature.