|This paperback edition is 600 pages, people. 600 pages! The Forsyte Saga is 900 pages! That is 1500 pages.|
Old Wives Tale (1908)
by Arnold Bennett
Man these Edwardian era English novels give no ground to the lengthy style of 19th century fiction. I suppose there is nothing particularly amiss about The Forsyte Saga clocking in at 912 pages in print because, after all, it is a trilogy of books, making each book roughly 300 pages. But then to go from The 900 page Forsyte Saga directly into Arnold Bennett's Old Wives Tale. Well, Old Wives Tale is itself 624 pages in print. The fact that I read both books in Kindle is critical because seriously, am I going to actually pay for 1500 pages of social-realist-esque fiction published in England in the first decade of the 20th century? Never. It would NEVER happen. They won't teach these novels in English literature class because they are too expensive. So if it weren't for the free, public domain editions available through Amazon, I would have never read either book.
The Old Wives Tale tells the entire lives of two mid-late Victorian sisters: Sophia and Constance, who are raised the daughter of an infirm shopkeeper and his younger wife. Sophia runs off to Paris with a travelling salesman, while Constance marries the help. The book is structured in four parts. Part one is their childhood. Part 2 is the married life of Constance. Part 3 is Sophia's life in Paris and then Part 4 is their reconciliation and eventual death.
The part to focus on is Sophia's Parisian "adventure." She is quickly abandoned by her proliferate husband after he blows through a ten thousand pound inheritance. Sophie ends up running a French boarding house that will ring bells for anyone familiar with Eugenie Grandet, La Pere Goirot, Lost Illusions, Therese Raquin, Drunkard, Nana or Bel Ami. In other words, Bennett depicts the world of the Parisian boarding house. I'm not sure if he is the first novelist to do this in the English language, but it sure feels like it. The easy resemblance between Bennett's description and, say, the way Zola wrote about Paris in Nana (published 1880) makes me wonder about Bennett's own reading habits.