(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 846 words.)

The Old Wives' Tale Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Sixteen-year-old Constance Baines is a plump, pleasant girl with a snub nose. Sophia Baines, fifteen years old, is a handsome girl with imagination and daring. The first symptoms of her rebelliousness and strong individuality come when she announces her desire to be a teacher in 1864. Mr. and Mrs. Baines own a draper’s shop, and their income is adequate. They are most respectable and are therefore horrified at their daughter’s unconventional plan, for it had been taken for granted that she as well as Constance would assist in the shop.

When Sophia was four years old, John Baines, her father, had suffered a stroke of paralysis that left him disabled and his faculties greatly impaired. Prodded by his capable wife, he joins in forbidding Sophia to think of teaching, but his opposition only strengthens Sophia’s resolve.

When Sophia is left alone to care for her father one day, she sees a handsome young man, a representative of a wholesale firm, enter the store. She invents an errand to take her into the shop. She learns that his name is Gerald Scales. When Sophia returns to her father’s room, she finds that he had slipped off the bed and, unable to move himself, died of asphyxia. Mr. Baines’s old friend, Mr. Critchlow, is called immediately; having seen Sophia in the shop with Gerald, he instantly accuses her of killing her father. Presumably as a gesture of repentance but actually because she hopes for an opportunity to see Gerald again, Sophia offers to give up her plans to teach.

Sophia was working in millinery when Constance assisted Samuel Povey, the clerk, a small quiet man without dignity and without imagination. He and Constance gradually fall in love.

After two years, Gerald Scales returns. By artful contriving, Sophia manages to meet him alone and to initiate a correspondence. Mrs. Baines recognizes Sophia’s infatuation and sends her off to visit her aunt Harriet. Several weeks later, Sophia runs off with Gerald. She writes her mother that they were married and planning to live abroad. A short time later, Constance and Samuel Povey are married. Mrs. Baines turns over the house and shop to them and goes to live with her sister.

The married life of Constance holds few surprises, and the couple soon settles into a routine tradesman’s existence. Nothing further is heard of Sophia except for an occasional Christmas card giving no address. After six years of marriage, the couple has a son, Cyril. Constance centers her life on the baby, more so since her own mother had died shortly after his birth. Povey also devotes much attention to his son, but he makes his wife miserable by his insistence on discipline. When, after twenty years of marriage, Povey catches pneumonia, dies, and leaves Constance a widow, she devotes herself entirely to Cyril. He is a charming, intelligent boy, but he seems indifferent to his mother’s efforts to please him. When...

(The entire section is 1192 words.)