¶ The Old Wives’ Tale, Snips from Periodicals
§ Three Billboards, Miss Bates’s Christian NameWeather

¶ Abashed — that’s the word for it, how I felt when I finished reading The Old Wives’ Tale. I had not read it before, nor I had read anything else by Arnold Bennett (1867-1931). Bennett is the now all-but-unread novelist from England’s Midlands — the Potteries of Staffordshire — who antagonized Virginia Woolf into writing a notorious, and apparently effective, put-down. Because Woolf disdained his artistry, and because his artistry made him a lot of money, Bennett was swept, during the second half of the last century, into the lumber-room of forgotten best-sellers, to keep company with Sir Walter Scott and John Galsworthy. Abashed, and having read but the one novel, I am disinclined to make a fuss about restoring Bennett to his rightful plinth, so I’ll just say this: The Old Wives’ Tale merits a place on the shelf next to Middlemarch. The Baines sisters, Constance and Sophia, are as meditatively engrossing as Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate. 

Putting the book down, I wondered if the hour of death offers the best perspective from which to appreciate a life, as Constance and Sophia do before they expire, while Bennett, looking over their shoulders, does the same. True, neither sister is actually concerned with her own life. Sophia is contemplating the corpse of the husband whom she has not seen in a very long time, and Constance is thinking of her sister. Both feel that the lives that they’re thinking about were wasted. The reader is sympathetic to Sophia’s dry grief; Gerald Scales was an absolute bounder, good for nothing except his resemblance, in her eyes, to Brad Pitt (if I may be excused the anachronism). As for Constance, this reader almost hated her for lacking the imagination to grasp Sophia’s eventful life. And yet, Bennett asks us, how would Constance know it any better? Outwardly quiet as it was, no one who knew Constance could imagine what her life had been like. “No one but Constance could realize all that Constance had been through, and all that life had meant to her.” Some might find this observation “sentimental.” In the context of the novel, I found it as mordant as George Eliot’s assurance that Dr Lydgate “had not done what he once meant to do.”

I have been giving a good deal of thought lately to our canonical views of literature, and of English literature; to our ideas of what distinguishes a great novel from a good one, and if those ideas have any merit whatsoever; and to how I might defend any list that I might compile of five or ten or twenty super books. I am not prepared to expatiate on the subject now. But it did seem to me that The Old Wives’ Tale is a much better “Continental” novel than it is an English one. That is, it stands up well next to Balzac and Turgenev (Bennett’s “god”), Flaubert and Fontane, Lampedusa and even Proust. Whereas, considering it as an English novel, one feels positively obliged to judge it “uneven.” What does this mean? I think that it has something to do with the peculiarities of the Anglophone sense of humor. No one will deny that we have one, we English-speakers, or that we indulge it frequently. Or — and this may be what it comes down to — that we like to do so loudly. I have often thought that where we laugh, the “European” smiles, and, where the European smiles, quite often, we don’t respond at all. There is something about our responsiveness to amusement that requires a separate track, a departure from the schedule of other sensibilities. It’s as if “fun” makes a funfair of life. If a book makes us laugh, then we don’t want it to do anything else, and if a book makes us feel, then an unwonted laugh will make us feel ridiculous. We are, in this, as in so many other ways, all too much like thirteen year-old boys. 

To say that The Old Wives’ Tale plays upon the gamut of emotions, that it packs piquant domestic scenes alongside ringside views of world-historical upsets, that it has everything — to say these things is simply to risk making it out to be vulgar. Better to report that the novel traces the lives of sisters, one of whom stays at home while the other runs away. “Home” is Bursley, the fictional Burslem, one of the towns that was amalgamated, in 1910, into today’s Stoke-on-Trent. (Although there were six such towns, Bennett always writes of “five.”) “Away” is Paris. The story begins when Constance and Sophia, daughters of the town’s leading draper (confined to his bed after a stroke), are teenagers, in the 1860s. Curiously, the career of the runaway settles into its groove much more quickly than her sister’s. Caught with a worthless husband in the tumultuous Paris of 1871, Sophia emerges from the upheaval as an hôtelière: she runs a top-notch pension near the Champs-Elysées for twenty-five years. (I really cannot forgive Constance for regarding this establishment as a “boarding house.”) Constance, leading the life of a wife and mother in the house where she was born, suffers a rather bouncier inner life. Sophia learns everything that she needs to know before she is thirty. Constance, whose intelligence admittedly burns at lower wattage, is still learning decades later. Just as the sisters’ status is ambiguous, rooted in a commercial prosperity that was still widely deprecated in Britain, so it is difficult to decide whether or not these girls are “ordinary.” It is as impossible to say that they are as it is difficult to show why they are not. 

The same might be said of Bennett’s prose. It is fluent, and often winking, but it is neither showy nor dull. I would say that Bennett indulges every writerly impulse but always with the caveat: “Don’t frighten the horses.” Having lived long enough to be an old horse myself, I appreciate the peace and quiet of Bennett’s conduct. No matter what is going on in his heroines’ lives, he himself is always firmly and attractively in charge; as a tour guide, he is almost as interesting as the spectacle. I look forward to reading more. 

Which reminds me: why I just read it now. A very long time ago, forty years or more, I picked up a clutch of red-jacketed Everyman Library editions of Bennett’s novels; you still heard about him in those days, and I meant to find out why. All but one of these small volumes was eventually culled, unread by me, but I held on to The Old Wives’ Tale even though I could no longer even imagine where I had heard that it was the masterpiece that it apparently is. Last month, it too was almost given the heave-ho. I decided to read it instead, or at least to give it a serious try. Phew! Now the novels are rather hard to get, even in the UK. And do I or do I not have a copy of “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”? (4 February)

¶ Snips from Periodicals: 

The New Yorker: ... her home, like her prose, is straightforward in style, unfussy, minimally but functionally adorned. The table, couch and chairs are there to be used by the body, not enjoyed by the eye.*

London Review of Books: Despite abundant evidence from around the world, many people still find it hard to accept that flagrant lying is no longer a disqualification in public life, and that it might in fact be an attraction.**

 * Alexandra Schwarz on Vivian Gornick, The New Yorker, 10 Feb 2020, p. 18. 

** James Butler on Labour’s Defeat, LRB, 42/3, p. 12.

It’s hard to know whether Alexandra Schwarz means to be even a little bit complimentary in her description of Vivian Gornick’s living room. To me, what she says is the description of a pathology, not in the sense of something wrong but rather of something missing. My own pathology, of course, is quite the opposite. I will sacrifice a good deal of convenience to the pleasure of the eye. If I don’t have a sofa to stretch out on, much I should like to have one sometimes, it’s because the right couch for me would be too large and ugly; and since I always make the bed, I can’t stretch out on that, either. If I don’t have enough in the way of bookshelves, that’s because I have a lot in the way of pictures. It’s either one or the other. My eye has to be happy, or I’m miserable. Dejected, anyway. 

I should have thought that minimal adornment was a contradiction in terms. Maybe it’s not, though, if, like Gornick, you grow up a believer in your parents’ socialism. I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up sharing the beliefs common in my environment. I hated the stupid smugness of the people I grew up among. I know I’m pretty posh by nature, but I will never (I pray) be one of them. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that I think it’s possible to be a stickler for the correct use of knives and forks without being swinish. There is something terribly ignorant about socialists: it’s clear that they don’t know very much about ease. On the one hand: why should they? How would they? On the other: ignorance makes them terrible critics. They can never satisfactorily explain why everybody they know from the neighborhood will, if given the chance, commence the laborious climb up the social ladder, leaving the neighborhood behind more quickly than they mean to do. It is related somehow to the enjoyment of the eye. Anyway, I have always believed, quite passionately really, that socialists are wrong about life, no matter how right they are about justice. 

The exceptions to the aforesaid are the writers and the orators. These recite their creed every day, professionally. Gornick went into literature, however, not politics, and I am looking forward to reading Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, which has just come out. 

As for Butler’s remark, with which I am in complete accord, I am too busy writing about the phenomenon myself (not here) to say more. (6 February)


§ Stretched out in bed, watching a DVD, in the middle of the afternoon — such abandon! It may be doctor’s orders to stay off my feet these days, but it’s still unnatural. Is something the matter? Am I being wicked? The movie on the DVD is certainly no occasion of sin. It’s Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, the kind of art movie most of whose characters would find depressing. It was a little depressing to me, too. I often wonder if I should have had a happier, or at least a sunnier, life if I had never crossed the Hudson River, but had to make do with imagining what the rest of the country is like. If I had not spent twelve solid years there. They were not terrible times for me; I was more or less impermeable. But I saw a lot of things that I wish I hadn’t, got to know how people lived, became familiar with different accents, and came back to New York without missing a single thing. There was  this: Why? Why is it like that? Perhaps there is simply too much landscape out there. Even when — especially when — there is no landscape to speak of, there is too much of it. 

The landscape in Three Billboards is beautiful. Abbie Cornish, in her clutch of scenes, is beautiful. Everything else about the picture is unattractive, intentionally, I expect, but not interestingly so. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell turn in fine performances, as one would expect, but neither’s character holds a candle to the somewhat similar men they play in Transsiberian and The Way Way Back. And Mildred, grim and determined as she is, is nothing like as grim and determined as Linda, the kook Frances McDormand plays in Burn After Reading. The world of Ebbing is pinched. There is not a single inviting interior space. There isn’t any decent furniture. The general deprivation is appalling, and yet no one seems to be aware of it. I remember that world. I wish I didn’t. 

But don’t listen to me. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a fine and entertaining film. The world is full of small towns dotted with people too unlucky to find themselves in bigger places. There are already many movies in my DVD collection that I ought to have rented, not bought. (12 February)

§ Quick: what is Miss Bates’s Christian name? The talkative spinster in Jane Austen’s Emma: what’s her name? I don’t know how many times I’ve read the novel, but I’ve never noticed. Never even thought about it! Miss Bates’s first name is clearly “Miss” — as in “absolutely unmarriageable.”

But of course she does have a name, and it is not “Miss.” She tells you what it is herself, by way of quoting her mother. You will find it in Chapter 19, lodged in the lady’s lengthy account of Jane Fairfax’s unforeseen impending visit. 

By great good luck, I had just learned that Miranda Hart is going to play Miss Bates in the forthcoming screen adaptation when I re-read Chapter 19 the other night. My test of the movie’s quality will be the degree to which Miranda is allowed to demonstrate that Miss Bates is the moral heart of the novel. She is the pebble in the slipper that Emma must learn to honor and respect, if not quite to love; she is the good person who shows how difficult it is to be a good person even if you’re the girl who has everything. Miss Bates, of course, has practically nothing. She and her elderly mother are living on the fumes of extinct prosperity. What Miss Bates does have is a formidable loquacity, which she puts to work expressing her ceaseless gratitude for the crumbs that come her way. You must remember, when I say this, that I have reached the age of Mrs Batesor thereabouts. When I was Emma’s age, I felt very much as Emma herself does: tempted to skim. The other night, I read every word with the deepest smile.

It’s not quite clear to me whether I am reading Emma for the umpteenth time or not. Noticing that I was having a hard time with the early chapters of novels that I knew well, I decided to begin Emma, this time, at Chapter 17. Chapter 16 is devoted to the dust cloud of Emma’s collapsed ambitions for her new friend, Harriet Smith; Mr Elton, the vicar, appalled by the discovery that Emma had him down for Harriet, a love-child of no social standing, instead of for herself, has slipped away to Bath, leaving Emma to grin and bear it without the altogether unmanageable load of mortification that his presence would assure. The novel can now begin. 

I have long regarded the episode that opens Emma and so quickly comes to its embarrassing climax as an overture of sorts. It is the stuff of a novel, but Austen seems to have another novel in mind. I hadn’t developed the thought any further until now. By beginning after the excitement has subsided, I could see calmly and clearly what must be obvious to everybody, which is that Emma is about the secret engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. I had always regarded this as a background story, because, after all, it doesn’t concern Emma at all, not directly, and what could be more pert than than naming a novel about other people after so attractive a heroine as Emma Woodhouse? Or more typical of Jane Austen — as age and perspective prompt me to ask. Emma a red herring? Surely not! But in fact nothing at all happens to Emma. Really nothing! All those careful arrangements at the end, capped by the agreement that Mr Knightley, not his bride, will change residence, leave everything, despite making room for the unmentionable intimacies of marriage, exactly as it was at the beginning. No, the action-plot of Emma is the secret-agent thriller of a matrimonio segreto.

Chapter 19 begins with the statement that Frank Churchill has failed to pay a visit to meet his father’s new wife. The matter is discussed by Emma and Mr Knightley in a manner that reminds me of the Analects of Confucius. That’s exactly who Mr Knightley sounds like when he assures Emma that a gentleman is always free to do his duty. Emma’s determination to think well of Frank despite his inarguable lapse is of course self-interested; she’s already thinking of Frank for herself, and Mr Knightley is already vexed by his awareness of this — an awareness that he must keep partial, occluded, and thus all the more vexing. In the very next chapter, we learn that Jane is about to make an untimely return to her native village. We hear a lot about Jane and Frank in these two chapters, ostensibly because their presence will constitute the kind of novelty for which small towns pant, but really to plant both of them as unknown quantities in Emma’s little world. She has never met Frank; she has never liked Jane. Jane, at least as naturally gifted as Emma herself, is otherwise much less fortunate materially, and she has clearly felt it necessary to work on what talents she possesses, something that, to the regret of her flourishing if discreet vanity, Emma hasn’t bothered to do with her own. Who these unknown persons really are, and the nature of their relationship (completely unsuspected at first), will occupy the bulk of the narrative that follows. 

This suits a novel aimed at the acquisition of honest self-knowledge. To know who you really are, you must sit still and pay attention to the world around you, and that is pretty much all that Emma is asked to do. Like Lucy Ricardo, Emma can be a wise observer so long as she doesn’t try to do anything. Those opening sixteen chapters — the overture — show us what Emma is capable of doing, thus exhausting the need for further disasters. There is only one thing that Emma’s education requires: true remorse for her unthinking rudeness to Miss Bates at Box Hill. Emma’s great achievement is to be utterly ashamed of herself. 

I’ve never heard of the actress who is going to play the title role, but I’m hoping that the filmmakers will know how to let Miranda Hart make her Emma suffer. (17 February)

¶ Bad idea: reading Jenny Offill’s Weather while my cold got a little worse. Speaking of worse, Christine Smallwood’s review, in Bookforum — which, however, is not really a review, but more of a witness, as if Smallwood were reporting on a revival at which Offill had testified to her own worst fears about the environment. A complaining report. “There is something unsatisfying about Weather. It looks at the scariest things, but as if with one eye only. … It’s like the book itself can only bearly bear its subject.” With both eyes wide open, Smallwood writes, “Those of us who believe that we can salvage at least some habitable community out of the hellish destruction around would do well to work quickly and together and with as much intention to the present as to the future.” At the age of seventy-two, afflicted with a runny nose, I am made to feel somewhat in the way. My take on Weather: Nietzsche, collaborating with Donald Barthelme, does stand-up in Brooklyn. There are jokes, even. My favorite: “These [transhumanists] long for immortality, but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee.” (39) (26 February)



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