In 1908 when The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett was first published Virginia Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out was still eight years away: not a terribly long time, but then times were changing fast. Arnold Bennett, born in 1867 (just 15 years earlier than Woolf) was an adult in the Victorian Age; Woolf was just a few days away from being nineteen in 1901 when Queen Victoria died, Bennett was thirty-four. In terms of 'eras' or 'epochs' this, I feel, made a difference. Bennett was an Edwardian writer, and his novel The Old Wives' Tale was set during the Victorian age, an age he knew well. For me the Edwardian period was like a bridge between the old, the Victorian, and the new: modernism. Virginia Woolf was a modernist, Bennett had not left the Victorian era behind whilst Virginia Woolf was very explicit in moving forward, moving beyond, and at times rejecting some of its norms and its writing methods. For that alone, for a new writer looking to carve a niche, Arnold Bennett was a good writer to strike out against, and this is what she did in her essay 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown', published first in the Nation and Athenaeum in 1923 then revised and re-published in the Criterion in July 1924.
In the essay she describes an incident on a train on her journey from Richmond to Waterloo. It appears there is an argument between two passengers, the man she calls Mr. Smith, the woman Mrs. Brown. Mr. Smith is the dominant party, Mrs. Brown is vulnerable, poor, and above all else immensely intriguing. Woolf talks of writing a novel about her (indeed her 'An Unwritten Novel', 1920, was inspired by the incident) and has previously Arnold Bennett in saying,
The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else... Style counts; plot counts; originality of outlook counts. But none of these counts anything like so much as the convincingness of the characters. If the characters are real the novel will have a chance; if they are not, oblivion will be its portion... [from 'Is the novel decaying?' in Cassell's Weekly, 28th March 1923. Online here]
|Virginia Woolf with Julian Bell, 1910.|
Woolf imagines how Mrs. Brown would be treated by novelists:
The English writer would make the old lady into a 'character'; he would bring out her oddities and mannerisms; her buttons and wrinkles; her ribbons and warts. Her personality would dominate the book. A French writer would rub out all that; he would sacrifice the individual to give a more general view of human nature; to make a more abstract, proportioned, and harmonious whole. The Russian would pierce through the flesh; would reveal the soul - the soul alone, wandering out into the Waterloo Road, asking of life some tremendous question which would sound on and on in our ears after the book was finishing.
Woolf agrees with in terms of great characters, however she goes on to reject his claim that the novel was truly decaying. She refers to him and his contemporaries as Edwardian, herself and her contemporaries as Georgian (referring to the reign of King George V, who reigned from 1910 - 1936). Bennett was attacking the Georgians in his claims that these 'new' writers could create a decent character. Woolf reacted with force, arguing that there was no good novelist of the Edwardian age from which the Georgian writer could learn from:
Mr. Conrad is a Pole; which sets him apart, and makes him, however admirable, not very helpful. Mr Hardy has written no novel since 1895. The most prominent and successful novelists in the year 1910 were, I suppose, Mr Wells, Mr Bennett, and Mr Galsworthy. Now it seems to me that to go to these men and ask them to teach you how to write a novel - how to create characters that are real - is precisely like going to a bootmaker and asking him to teach you how to make a watch.
She does add, I should say, that she has enjoyed their books and does find them to be valuable. However, she goes on to remark that they are odd.
Sometimes I wonder if we are right to call them books at all. For they leave one with so strange a feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction. In order to complete them it seems necessary to do something - to join a society, or more desperately, to write a cheque. That done, the restlessness is laid, the book is finished; it can be put upon the shelf, and need never be read again.
|Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell.|
On Bennett, she writes that he would take in every detail of the aforementioned Mrs Brown and her setting. Referring to Bennett's Hilda Lessways (1911) she describes his attention to detail exhausting:
... we can only hear Mr Bennett's voice telling us facts about rents and free-holds and copyholds and fines. What can Mr Bennett be about? I have formed my own opinion of what Mr Bennett is about - he is trying to make us imagine for him; he is trying to hypnotize us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there. With all his powers of observation, which are marvellous, with all his sympathy and humanity, which are great, Mr Bennett has never once looked at Mrs Brown in her corner.
By accepting the Edwardian styles, as Woolf argues E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence had done, they had "spoilt" their early works, though she concedes "our Georgian writers... do not pour out three immortal masterpieces with Victorian regularity every autumn"! Nevertheless these Georgians do wish to strike out, and do so by any means necessary (it should be noted that here she takes a swipe at James Joyce and T. S. Eliot). "Failures and fragments", Woolf writes, will occur, however she concludes,
But do not expect just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment of her [Mrs Brown]. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction - we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs Brown.
Woolf certainly was right there, but I have to say this is one of the more mean-spirited essays by Woolf that I have come across (perhaps understandable as Bennett described her Jacob's Room, 1923, as being very clever, but "obsessed with details of originality and cleverness"). and for all that I love Virginia Woolf's writing, she, I think, must take at least partial responsibility for one disservice to literature: her treatment of Arnold Bennett, and the possibility that she is partly the reason he is not read as widely as he might be. Even if that is a hard assessment, I can blame her wholeheartedly for putting me off reading Bennett in the first place. Yes, that is stupid, stupid to allow oneself to pre-judge an author on someone else's defensive essay, but it is what it is. Plenty of authors have been less than flattering about their predecessors: Flaubert wrote of Sand that she was "A great cow full of ink," Waugh on Proust, "I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective", Faulkner on Hemingway, "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary", and Hemingway on Faulkner "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"
And so it goes on. However, I finally decided last week to stop putting off reading Arnold Bennett, so I read The Old Wives' Tale, published, as I said earlier, in 1908. It is, as The Independent describes it, a "book of a lifetime": Bennett describes the lives of two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines beginning with their adolescent in their parents' draper's shop in Staffordshire (West Midlands) and following their lives to old age. Constance, quite literally "constant", remains in the drapery shop and lives her life not unlike her mother's. She marries Samuel Povey and they live an essentially quiet life in the small town. Sophia on the other hand elopes to London with Gerald Scales (note that this part of the book is set in 1866) and they go on to Paris. Gerald ditches her after a few years of marriage and she is left there alone, unwilling to return to Staffordshire but unsure as to her next steps.
On the face of it, it ought to be Sophia's story that is the most interesting; mid-19th Century Parisian life under the Second Empire, and not without references to the Franco-Prussian War (1870 - 1871): there are a few comparisons to be made with Émile Zola. But Constance's life in England is also compelling - Bennett's attention to detail may have frustrated Virginia Woolf but for me the whole novel was alive, whether it be with the hustle and bustle of Paris or the comings and goings of the locals Constance grew up and grew old with.
This woman was once young, slim, perhaps beautiful; certainly free from these ridiculous mannerisms. Very probably she is unconscious of her singularities. Her case is a tragedy. One ought to be able to make a heartrending novel out of the history of a woman such as she." Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque—far from it!—but there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.
This sympathy and the scope of The Old Wives' Tale gives the novel a certain beauty, despite the almost stillness of Staffordshire and despite the upheavals and stress of Paris. Bennett has taken the two sisters, described their lives, the contrasts and the symmetry, and produced more than the "house" as Woolf puts it - he produced Paris and England, two different countries, two societies, two different lives, unities and divisions, suffering, happiness found despite that, and above all else an epoch. We think of Old Wives' Tales as nonsense, superstitions, but Bennett made these two old wives, Sophia and Constance, really matter: The Old Wives' Tale is a great achievement, and for that, despite Woolf, I mean to read more of Mr. Bennett.