2009: 115. The Old Wives’ Tale

“Those two girls, Constance and Sophia Baines, paid no heed to the manifold interest of their situation, of which, indeed, they had never been conscious.”

The Old Wives’ Tale, Arnold Bennett

      This is absolutely one of those books that I never would have read, had I not embarked on this Modern Library project, and thus reassures me (after reading a whole bunch of books this year that I appreciated for their literary value, but just did not enjoy), that there is more to this project than checking off a list.*  Anyway, the novel tells the story of the lives of two sisters.  It’s not particularly dramatic (even though one sister marries a rotter and lives through the siege of Paris), but is rather a recounting of two ordinary lives of two ordinary women.  Part one is their girlhood, part two tells the life of the elder sister, Constance, part three then tells the life of the younger sister, Sophia, and the final part tells (SPOILER) of them coming back together in old age.  What I liked about the book (which I have already alluded) is how normal the story feels - Bennett makes the Sophia and Constance into real people, and makes their mundane lives fascinating through the sympathy of his prose.  He pokes a little gentle fun at their old-fashioned ways, but even that serves mainly to make fun of the reader’s own sense that we are oh-so-modern.**  He mostly just presents a clear tale of the lives of two regular women, neither of whom is particularly unusual.  The fact that he manages to make these tales so interesting is both a credit to his talent, and the reason the book is worth reading.  

*Not that I don’t get great joy from list checking off!! And, to be frank, as much as I enjoyed reading The Old Wives’ Tale, it still calls into question the value judgments of the Modern Library people.  I just cannot believe that this novel is “better” or more influential or what have you than, say To Kill A Mockingbird.  Or Absalom, Absalom. Or, the entire works of Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, etc.  It’s an interesting read, but not canonical.

**The “we” would be the people of 1900ish, when this was written, but the same message applies to the modern reader.


Date/Place Completed:  September 2009; D.C.

Categories:  Fiction, Modern Library Top 100, Book Resolutions


© Carrie Dunsmore 2017