Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
In The Old Wives’ Tale, the central goal of the Baines sisters, who are teenagers when the novel opens, is to leave Bursley. Constance, however, does not leave; instead, she marries Samuel Povey, becomes a mother of sons and inherits and manages the family dry goods store. Sophia elopes with a traveling salesman, Gerald Scales, who abandons her in Paris. At the end of their lives, they reunite in Bursley, live together in their family’s home, and die there within a brief time.
When Sophia finally returns to Bursley from Paris, she finds her hometown dirtier, smaller, smokier, and more insular than she remembers it to have been. In contrast, her sister “Constance did not appear to realize the awful conditions of dirt, decay and provinciality in which she was living.” Sophia feels that it would kill her to have to live there again: “It’s deadening. It weighs on you.” At the same time, however, Sophia realizes that she has been haunted by Bursley her whole life as “she had always compared France disadvantageously with England,” and thus, missed the uniqueness and beauty of Paris until she was once again in Bursley, subject to her old feelings of being trapped in a place where the inhabitants “probably never realized that the whole rest of the world was not more or less like Bursley.”
Almost nothing ever changes in Bursley, which, as a town, has an uneasy relationship with the adjacent countryside. Its industrial works seem to be superimposed on the natural beauty of the place. Bennett used his “Five Towns” novels to examine how people living in industrial regions tend not to find any beauty in their lives, while showing how beauty and aesthetic value can exist in such places. Bennett depicts Bursley as possessing a synthesis of opinions, limited experience of the outside world, and a general air of self-satisfaction. Constance’s domestic life, for example, though not happy, attests to the economic value of hard work, respectability within a community, and a stable marriage. Because of the centrality of pottery to civilization, the Potteries is symbolic of the reach of industry across all of England, as almost every English cook and homemaker had Potteries wares in kitchens and dining rooms.
*Paris. Capital of France, in which Sophia spends much of her life after eloping with Gerald Scales. Bennett moved to Paris in 1903 and finished writing The Old Wives’ Tale there. While he was there, he came to realize that England’s Midlands region meant much to him, both personally and as a source of literary inspiration. Sophia’s character is the vehicle for the exploration of how people carry influences of the past into their present lives, and what it feels like to return “home” after many years away. When Sophia returns, she is an alien to her sister’s affection, to Bursley, and to herself, as she is not really attached to either her hometown or to Paris, where she transforms herself from an abandoned wife into a successful businesswoman.
When Sophia first arrives in Paris, Gerald Scales takes her to an art exhibit of prints by the French artist Gustave Doré, who was popular in the Five Towns. During their first few months in Paris, both Sophia and Gerald try to overcome how “the locality was not one to correspond with the ideal” of Paris. After Scales leaves her, Sophia makes her own way, respectably, and acquires a small hotel, the Pension Frensham on the rue Lord Byron–which is named after the English poet. She hopes to hear news of the Five Towns from some of the thousands of guests who stay under her roof. However, not one of them ever mentions Bursley or anyone Sophia knew there until Matthew Peel-Swynnerton, a young employee of the Peels stores of the Five Towns, and a friend of her nephew, Cyril Povey, takes rooms in her hotel. He eventually arranges for Sophia to reunite with Constance and moves her back to Bursley.