Regarded as one of Arnold Bennett's finest works, The Old Wives' Tale was first published in 1908. It tells the story of sisters Constance and Sophia Baines, both very different from one another, and follows their lives from youth into old age. Bennett's inspiration was an encounter in a Parisian restaurant: "an old woman came into the restaurant to dine. She was fat, shapeless, ugly, and grotesque.
She had a ridiculous voice, and ridiculous gestures. It was easy to see that she lived alone, and that in the long lapse of years she had developed the kind of peculiarity which induces guffaws among the thoughtless." and "I reflected, concerning the grotesque diner: "This woman was once young, slim, perhaps beautiful; certainly free from these ridiculous mannerisms. Very probably she is unconscious of her singularities.
Her case is a tragedy. One ought to be able to make a heartrending novel out of the history of a woman such as she." Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque--far from it!--but there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind.
And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos."
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