Places: The Old Wives’ Tale

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1908

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedBursley

Bursley. Old Wives’ Tale, TheEnglish town in which the Baines sisters live and die. Arnold Bennett adapted the name “Bursley” from that of the real town of Burslem, which is located in Staffordshire in the English Midlands, between Liverpool and London–the region in which he was born. The area around Bennett’s Stoke-on-Trent birthplace was known as the Potteries because its towns were famous for producing the clay and craft associated with the production of fine Wedgewood and Staffordshire china and earthenware. Such other Bennett novels as Anna of the Five Towns (1902) and The Clayhanger (1910) also use Bursley as their primary locations. Known collectively as the “Five Towns” novels, these books gave Bennett’s London readers a sense that they were being exposed to life in a place and a town that they would never visit. This gives the novel a documentary quality as well as a strong sense of regional realism.

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.

BibliographyBroomfield, Olga R. Q. Arnold Bennett. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Bennett considered The Old Wives’ Tale a masterpiece. The book demonstrates that in the emotional lives of individuals, the degrees of comedy and tragedy are relative to the characters’ perceptions of their experience.Fromm, Gloria G. “Remythologizing Arnold Bennett.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 16, no. 1 (Fall, 1982): 19-34. Discusses Virginia Woolf’s criticism, which had a devastating effect on Bennett’s reputation. Argues that Woolf missed his assertion that there is no escaping expression of the self, no matter how skillful a writer may be.Lucas, John. Arnold Bennett: A Study of His Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1974. Asserts that Guy de Maupassant’s cynicism influenced Bennett’s portrayal of Constance. Bennett considered The Old Wives’ Tale an important demonstration of his seriousness as a writer.Meckier, Jerome. “Distortion Versus Revaluation: Three Twentieth-Century Responses to Victorian Fiction.” Victorian Newsletter 73 (Spring, 1988): 3-8. Suggests that The Old Wives’ Tale is a criticism of the cynicism found in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848). Bennett drew more joy than Thackeray did from the secular world.Roby, Kinley E. A Writer at War: Arnold Bennett, 1914-1918. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. The Old Wives’ Tale, which shows no meaning in the lives of its characters, anticipates a major theme of twentieth century British and American literature.
Categories: Places