The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

I have been avoiding this book for forty years and now here I am, loving it.

When I was a teenager in the sixties and seventies Arnold Bennett’s novel The Old Wives’ Tale seemed to be the most widely available book in Britain – every library, even the traveling library that visited me when I was pregnant teenager living on cream cakes in rural Worleston near Nantwich in Cheshire, stocked a much-read hardback copy, every secondhand shop had several editions, and it was always available on the bookstall at any village jumble sale. (Now there’s an anachronism. For the postmodernists among us, a jumble sale was a BigSoc thing, like a carboot sale only taking place inside a village/church/school hall and all the money went to a good cause instead of to individual traders. And there was jumble! Mountains of it! You had to flail your way through stuff in search of treasure, a jumble of old clothes mainly but also ancient sheets and Second World War Airforce bedspreads, Victorian umbrellas, baby baths and loads of elasticwobblegirdles that no one could want for any purpose. I suppose people just didn’t know how to dispose of them safely).

When, as a nineteen year, with my beautiful baby in her carricot, I ran Professor Bookworm’s Fossil Books, possibly the world’s smallest secondhand bookshop and my first entrepreneurial concern (I won’t say it was a going concern because it wasn’t, quite) copies of The Old Wives’ Tale must have comprised about a sixth of our entire stock. That and The Professor at the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes (which I still haven’t read). I resisted it, despite, or perhaps because of, its ubiquity.

And now here I am, thanks to the recommendation of Brian Nellist (for direct experience of whom please visit Nellibobs on You Tube here ) I am 170 pages in and totally overwhelmed by its utter brilliance and individuality. Imagine a small town novel by D.H. Lawrence crossed with one by Mrs Gaskell, then add in a bit of Elizabeth Taylor or Sheena McKay and spike with the teeniest shard of Will Self.

It’s astute, full of feeling, very original and very very funny.

Story so far: Small town thinks it is centre of universe, seen through the eyes of the family that runs the draper’s shop. One daughter runs off, the other gets married, a circus comes to town, a man gets a dog. There’s a death and a birth. Baby grows a bit, and has a birthday party:

From Chapter 3

He was four and a half years old, dark, like his father ;
handsome like his aunt, and tall for his age ; not one of his
features resembled a feature of his mother’s, but sometimes
he ” had her look.” From the capricious production of inar-
ticulate sounds, and then a few monosyllables that described
concrete things and obvious desires, he had gradually ac-
quired an astonishing idiomatic command over the most
difficult of Teutonic languages ; there was nothing that he
could not say. He could walk and run, was full of exact
knowledge about God, and entertained no doubt concerning
the special partiality of a minor deity called Jesus towards

Now, this party was his mother’s invention and scheme.
His father, after flouting it, had said that if it was to be done
at all, it should be done well, and had brought to the doing all
his organizing skill. Cyril had accepted it at first merely
accepted it ; but, as the day approached and the prepara-
tions increased in magnitude, he had come to look on it with
favour, then with enthusiasm. His father having taken him
to Daniel Povey’s opposite, to choose cakes, he had shown,
by his solemn and fastidious waverings, how seriously he re-
garded the affair.

Of course it had to occur on a Thursday afternoon. The
season was summer, suitable for pale and fragile toilettes.
And the eight children who sat round Aunt Harriet’s great
table glittered like the sun. Not Constance’s specially pro-
vided napkins could hide that wealth and profusion of white
lace and stitchery. Never in after-life are the genteel chil-
dren of the Five Towns so richly clad as at the age of four or
five years. Weeks of labour, thousands of cubic feet of gas,
whole nights stolen from repose, eyesight, and general health,
will disappear into the manufacture of a single frock that
accidental jam may ruin in ten seconds. Thus it was in those
old days ; and thus it is to-day. Cyril’s guests ranged in
years from four to six ; they were chiefly older than their
host ; this was a pity, it impaired his importance ; but up
to four years a child’s sense of propriety, even of common
decency, is altogether too unreliable for a respectable party.

Round about the outskirts of the table were the elders,
ladies the majority ; they also in their best, for they had to
meet each other. Constance displayed a new dress, of crim-
son silk ; after having mourned for her mother she had defi-
nitely abandoned the black which, by reason of her duties
in the shop, she had constantly worn from the age of sixteen
to within a few months of Cyril’s birth ; she never went into
the shop now, except casually, on brief visits of inspection.
She was still fat ; the destroyer of her figure sat at the head
of the table. Samuel kept close to her ; he was the only
male, until Mr. Critchlow astonishingly arrived ; among the
company Mr. Critchlow had a grand-niece. Samuel, if not
in his best, was certainly not in his everyday suit. With his
large frilled shirt-front, and small black tie, and his little
black beard and dark face over that, he looked very nervous
and self-conscious. He had not the habit of entertaining.
Nor had Constance ; but her benevolence ever bubbling up
to the calm surface of her personality made self-consciousness
impossible for her. Miss Insull was also present, in shop-
black, ” to help.” Lastly there was Amy, now as the years
passed slowly assuming the character of a faithful retainer,
though she was only twenty-three. An ugly, abrupt, down-
right girl, with convenient notions of pleasure ! For she
would rise early and retire late in order to contrive an hour
to go out with Master Cyril ; and to be allowed to put Master
Cyril to bed was, really, her highest bliss.

All these elders were continually inserting arms into the
fringe of fluffy children that surrounded the heaped table ;
removing dangerous spoons out of cups into saucers, replacing
plates, passing cakes, spreading jam, whispering consolations,
explanations, and sage counsel. Mr. Critchlow, snow-white
now but unbent, remarked that there was ” a pretty cackle,”
and he sniffed. Although the window was slightly open,
the air was heavy with the natural human odour which young
children transpire. More than one*mother, pressing her nose
into a lacy mass, to whisper, inhaled that pleasant perfume
with a voluptuous thrill.

Cyril, while attending steadily to the demands of his body,
was in a mood which approached -the ideal. Proud and
radiant, he combined urbanity with a certain fine condescen-
sion. His bright eyes, and his manner of scraping up jam
with a spoon, said :. ” I am the king of this party. This
party is solely in my honour. I know that. We all know it.
Still, I will pretend that we are equals, you and I.” He
talked about his picture-books to a young woman on his right
named Jennie, aged four, pale, pretty, the belle in fact, and
Mr. Critchlow’s grand-niece. The boy’s attractiveness was
indisputable ; he could put on quite an aristocratic air. It
was the most delicious sight to see them, Cyril and Jennie, so
soft and delicate, so infantile on their piles of cushions and
books, with their white socks and black shoes dangling far
distant from the carpet ; and yet so old, so self-contained !
And they were merely an epitome of the whole table. The
whole table was bathed in the charm and mystery of young
years, of helpless fragility, gentle forms, timid elegance, un-
shamed instincts, and waking souls. Constance and Samuel
were very satisfied ; full of praise for other people’s children,
but with the reserve that of course Cyril was hors concours.
They both really did believe, at that moment, that Cyril was,
in some subtle way which they felt but could not define,
superior to all other infants.

Some one, some officious relative of a visitor, began to pass
a certain cake which had brown walls, a roof of cocoa-nut
icing, and a yellow body studded with crimson globules. Not
a conspicuously gorgeous cake, not a cake to which a catholic
child would be likely to attach particular importance ; a good,
average cake ! Who could have guessed that it stood, in
Cyril’s esteem, as the cake of cakes ? He had insisted on his
father buying it at Cousin Daniel’s, and perhaps Samuel
ought to have divined that for Cyril that cake was the gleam
that an ardent spirit would follow through the wilderness.
Samuel, however, was not a careful observer, and seriously
lacked imagination. Constance knew only that Cyril had
mentioned the cake once or twice. Now by the hazard of
destiny that cake found much favour, helped into popularity
as it was by the blundering officious relative who, not dream-
ing what volcano she was treading on, urged its merits with
simpering enthusiasm. One boy took two slices, a slice in
each hand ; he happened to be the visitor of whom the cake
distributor was a relative, and she protested ; she expressed
the shock she suffered. Whereupon both Constance and
Samuel sprang forward and swore with angelic smiles that
nothing could be more perfect than the propriety of that dear
little fellow taking two slices of that cake. It was this hulla-
balloo that drew Cyril’s’ attention to the evanescence of the
cake of cakes. His face at once changed from calm pride to
a dreadful anxiety. His eyes bulged out. His tiny mouth
grew and grew, like a mouth in a nightmare. He was no
longer human ; he was a cake-eating tiger being balked of his
prey. Nobody noticed him. The officious fool of a woman
persuaded Jennie to take the last slice of the cake, which wag
quite a thin slice.

Then every one simultaneously noticed Cyril, for he gave
a yell- It was not the cry of a despairing soul who sees his
beautiful iridescent dream shattered at his feet ; it was the
cry of the strong, masterful spirit, furious. He turned upon
Jennie, sobbing, and snatched at her cake. Unaccustomed
to such behaviour from hosts, and being besides a haughty
put-you-in-your.-place beauty of the future, Jennie defended
her cake. After all, it was not she who had taken two slices
at once. Cyril hit her in the eye, and then crammed most of
the slice of cake into his enormous mouth. He could not
swallow it, nor even masticate it, for his throat was rigid and
tight. So the cake projected from his red lips, and big tears
watered it. The most awful mess you can conceive ! Jennie
wept loudly, and one or two others joined her in sympathy,
but the rest went on eating tranquilly, unmoved by the
horror which transfixed their elders.

A host to snatch food from a guest ! A host to strike a
guest ! A gentleman to strike a lady !

Constance whipped up Cyril from his chair and flew with
him to his own room (once Samuel’s), where she smacked him
on the arm and told him he was a very, very naughty boy and
that she didn’t know what his father would say. She took
the food out of his disgusting mouth or as much of it as she
could get at and then she left him, on the bed. Miss Jennie
was still in tears when, blushing scarlet, and trying to smile,
Constance returned to the drawing-room. Jennie would not
be appeased. Happily Jennie’s mother (being about to pre-
sent Jennie with a little brother she hoped) was not present.
Miss Insull had promised to see Jennie home, and it was de-
cided that she should go. Mr. Critchlow, in high sardonic
spirits, said that he would go too ; the three departed to-
gether, heavily charged with Constance’s love and apologies.
Then all pretended, and said loudly, that what had happened
was naught, that such things were always happening at chil-
dren’s parties. And visitors’ relatives asseverated that Cyril
was a perfect darling and that really Mrs. Povey must
not .

But the attempt to keep up appearance was a failure.

The Methuselah of visitors, a gaping girl of nearly eight
years, walked across the room to where Constance was stand-
ing, and said in a loud, confidential, fatuous voice :

” Cyril has been a rude boy, hasn’t he, Mrs. Povey ? ”

The clumsiness of children is sometimes tragic.

If you can’t wait for a paper copy read the whole book here:

Download the full text here

I have seen a four year old thinking ” I am the king of this party. This party is solely in my honour. I know that. We all know it. Still, I will pretend that we are equals, you and I.”

I just hadn’t realised that was what I had seen until I read Bennett’s sentence. More to come.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s