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Old Wives' Tale, The

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Joseph O'Connor Biography to Cynthia Ozick Biography

a novel by Arnold Bennett, published in 1908. Generally considered Bennett's masterpiece, this is the epic story of two sisters, Sophia and Constance Baines, daughters of a draper of Bursley (Burslem, one of the Five Towns). It charts their progress from their girlhood over the shop to old age, contrasting the dull, patient, stay-at-home Constance, who marries the shop's assistant Samuel Povey, with the spirited and rebellious Sophia, who elopes to Paris with the dashing but feckless commercial traveller, Gerald Scales, whom she has to bully into marriage. Constance lives for her husband, and, after his death (hastened by family scandal), for her son Cyril; the dramas and passions of small town provincial life are drawn with feeling and accuracy. Sophia, deserted by Gerald, survives in Paris as the ruthless and efficient mistress of a highly respectable boarding-house; there is a lively description drawn from newspaper and eyewitness accounts of Paris during the siege of 18701. (Sophia's French admirer Chirac departs by balloon and is never seen again.) At length the two long-estranged sisters are reconciled and Sophia returns as an old woman to her childhood home in Bursley. One of the finest passages in the book describes Sophia's emotions as, summoned too late to his deathbed, she sees the aged corpse of Gerald Scales, who has died poverty-stricken and alone in lodgings: she reflects on the impenetrable riddle of Time, in terms that reflect Bennett's own agnostic and stoic wonder at the mystery of life.

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