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The Old Wives' Tale

Arnold Bennett

Book Overview: 

The Old Wives’ Tale is a novel by Arnold Bennett. It deals with the lives of two very different sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, following their stories from their youth, working in their mother’s draper’s shop, into old age. It is generally regarded as one of Bennett’s finest works. It covers a period of about 70 years from roughly 1840 to 1905, and is set in Burslem and Paris.

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Book Excerpt: 
. . .a tiny locomotive was leading a procession of tiny waggons.

"And those are the navvies!" she murmured.

The unspeakable doings of the navvies in the Five Towns had reached even her: how they drank and swore all day on Sundays, how their huts and houses were dens of the most appalling infamy, how they were the curse of a God-fearing and respectable district! She and Gerald Scales glanced down at these dangerous beasts of prey in their yellow corduroys and their open shirts revealing hairy chests. No doubt they both thought how inconvenient it was that railways could not be brought into existence without the aid of such revolting and swinish animals. They glanced down from the height of their nice decorum and felt the powerful attraction of similar superior manners. The manners of the navvies were such that Sophia could not even regard them, nor Gerald Scales permit her to regard them, without blushing.

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Community Reviews

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...more

I recall intensely that The Old Wives' Tale had me weeping silently into my mug of tea on more than one occasion as I followed raptly the ordinary tedious lives of two more than a little irritating women from youth to addled toothlessness, whence are we all doomed, although, one hopes, these days...more

2 sisters, 2 separate lives : "I have been through too much, I cannot stand it." Yes, we're only concerned with our paltry selves, so why do some whine, Why did this novel not mention this or that war or crisis. Why? Cos outside events never matter . In his preface Bennett notes that ordinary pe...more

A simple concept of parallels and contrasts in the lives of sisters, carefully told with gentle irony. It starts in 1864 when Constance and Sophia are 16 and 15 respectively and follows them to the end of their lives.

Book 1 covers their teenage years together above and in a draper’s shop in a sm...more

A testament to the power and influence of Goodreads is the discovery of this gem which otherwise would have escaped my notice.

Bennett grabbed me with the second sentence of his preface and never let go for a moment. In many ways this 5 page preface is more compelling than the actual novel. Here h...more

He saw a fat, old, ridiculous, shapeless woman in a restaurant. Then he imagined her once as a vivacious young girl, perhaps pretty when she was a young woman, had some love affairs, married, brought forth children, and now she's like that, most likely alone and forgotten. For a long while he tho...more

The story of two sisters moving through life to their twilight years. Each faces life's tribulations, and works her way through it, but it is in the end, where they reflect back, that the brilliance of this book comes out. What is life, what contributions and differences do we make, and can we ad...more

I listened to this over a very long car ride. Both my husband and I thought it was a very good choice. It is easy to follow and keeps your attention.

The book is about two very different sisters—Constance and Sophia. Their names clue you in to their respective personalities. Constance is constant,...more

BLURB
"Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque -- far from it! -- but there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and her movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young gi...more

Arnold Bennett is one of the great under-read authors ever. His prose is shining-carved out of marble each word beautiful resonating off the surrounding ones. But really-his craft is so pure and every word counts. Of course, it's good his writing is so unsentimental because it keeps his stories f...more

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