Book of a lifetime: The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett
Friday 27 September 2013
My friend Lottie Moggach gave me the Penguin Classics edition of this book and the truth is that I never got around to reading it. The appeal of "classics" rather gets knocked out of you when you study English Literature at university. There always seemed to be better things to do than tackle 615 pages by a writer better known for an omelette than for his work.
In the end, I read the Kindle edition. And only because I had a long flight to India, it was free to download, and I had run out of other things to read. But it was a revelation to discover that the story, published in 1908 and about the lives of two sisters growing up in a drapery shop in the Potteries, felt more relevant than any of the free newspapers dished out in economy.
This is in large part down to the universality of Bennett's themes: in particular, the generation gap (the agony of an older generation watching the rise of the younger); the clash between the provincial and the metropolitan (Bennett contrasts Sophia's life in Paris where she escapes with her lover, with that of her sister Constance in Bursley); and the threat small communities face from industrialisation (his concern about the survival of the small shop echoes now).
But I was struck even more by the parallels between the world he describes and my own background as the child of Punjabi immigrants to the West Midlands. Life in the Potteries in Victorian times was hard and dangerous: just as life was for immigrants arriving to toil in Black Country factories in the 1950s and 1960s. Bennett's characters were obsessed with the acquisition of money and social status, in the same way that Punjabi Sikh culture fetishises wealth over education. Then there is the novel's presiding concern with marriage.
Surreally, "Baines", with the vowel dropped, is even a common Sikh surname. Finishing the book in Delhi, it struck me that the structure of The Old Wives' Tale could inspire a TV series about a Punjabi family, with the story moved forward a century from (roughly) 1840 to 1905 to (roughly) 1940 to 2005, the setting dragged 34 miles south from the Potteries to the West Midlands, and the characters based in an Asian corner shop instead of a Victorian draper's shop. Not knowing where to begin with a script, this idea gradually morphed into my new novel, Marriage Material. I would love it if my homage inspired people to give Bennett a chance.
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