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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 846

The Old Wives’ Tale is generally considered to be Benett’s masterpiece. It captures both the provincial and cosmopolitan worlds that were the basis of both his life and his fiction. In this work, Bennett attained an exquisite balance between his two homes, England and France, and between his romantic and...

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The Old Wives’ Tale is generally considered to be Benett’s masterpiece. It captures both the provincial and cosmopolitan worlds that were the basis of both his life and his fiction. In this work, Bennett attained an exquisite balance between his two homes, England and France, and between his romantic and realistic sides that are mirrored in the lives of his two heroines, Constance and Sophia.

Constance and Sophia are the daughters of a well-known draper in Bursley. Constance finds it no trouble at all to accustom herself to the drab atmosphere of the shop, to obey her mother in every respect, and to wait upon her invalid father. The beautiful Sophia dreads commerce and is bored by it, preferring a career as a teacher, which her parents strictly forbid her to pursue. Of a romantic disposition, Sophia is quickly taken with Gerald Scales, a traveling salesman who persuades her to elope with him.

Book 1 of the novel is finely balanced between Constance and Sophia, so that the claims of the family and the desires of the individual are both given their due. The characters of Sophia and Constance come to the fore in a hilarious scene involving Samuel Povey, the chief assistant of the shop, who has fallen into a stupor induced by the drug he has taken to deaden the pain of an aching tooth. As his mouth drops open, Sophia deftly inserts a pair of pliers, extracting what she deems to be the offending tooth, only to discover that she has pulled the wrong one. Naturally, Constance is shocked by her sister’s boldness, for she cannot imagine taking such liberties or behaving so recklessly. She can be neither as assertive nor as certain as her sister.

Book 2 is devoted to Constance’s life, her marriage to Samuel Povey, the birth of her darling son, her management of the shop after the death of her parents, and her retirement to the rooms above the shop when she is bought out by a female assistant and her new husband, the family’s dour attorney, Mr. Critchlow. Sophia largely disappears as a character, with Constance receiving only a few postcards that tell her that Sophia is still alive. It is to Bennett’s credit that he manages to make Constance an interesting character when her personality is so clearly drab in comparison with her sister’s. Bennett is successful because he is so well informed about the details of Constance’s life and can show her inner feelings, making what would appear trivial matters to an outside observer important events in Constance’s inner life. Bennett demonstrates how Constance makes her marriage and her career in the shop successful, so that within her limitations she performs admirably and heroically. At the same time, the intermittent mentions of Sophia whet the curiosity. What has she made of her life?

Book 3 shifts to Sophia, showing that Gerald Scales never meant to marry her. A spoiled young man with an inheritance, he planned only to make sport with Sophia, but her stolid refusal to have an affair with Scales forces him to marry her. Yet the marriage is a failure, a fact that Sophia prudently acknowledges when she takes advantage of her husband by stealing several hundred pounds to set aside for the day he leaves her.

After recovering from a serious illness occasioned by Gerald’s departure, Sophia finds that she is a Baines after all; that is, she has a gift for business, setting herself up with a pension and gaining a reputation as an industrious, no-nonsense proprietor. She rejects various male suitors, saving both her money and her energy for business, paying little attention to the Paris to which her husband has taken her and in which she expects to remain, having given up all thoughts of contacting her family.

At fifty, life changes for Sophia when she is recognized by a family friend who is visiting Paris. Contact is initiated by Constance, who overwhelms Sophia with her sweetness. Sophia is impressed and gratified by her sister’s generosity and her complete lack of criticism. Constance, in short, welcomes her sister home, and Bennett shrewdly conveys the way in which each must adjust to the habits of the other, sharing the Baines propensity for efficient household management but remaining divided on their views of the best way of spending their remaining years.

Book 4, titled “What Life Is,” sums up what the novel is ultimately about: how the sisters come to terms with their mortality and measure the way they have lived. Constance dies, appropriately enough, by exhausting herself in a long walk to the polling booth to vote against the referendum that would unite the five towns and put an end to the provincial life she has treasured. Sophia dies at the shock of seeing her presumably dead husband, who has finally returned home in penury, a feeble old man whose presence floods her with memories of her youth, of her wayward romantic feelings that have given way to a much safer, if narrower, life.

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