Buried Treasure

Deborah Moggach on Arnold Bennett's 'The Old Wives' Tale

Friday 13 February 2004 01:00

Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale (Penguin 20th-Century Classics) isn't exactly unknown; it was a great success at the time of publication (1908), for example. It has nonetheless fallen out of fashion and hardly anybody reads it now. The Bloomsbury Group are partly to blame; they sneered at Bennett for being too prolific and middlebrow, a bit of a hack. In the case of this extraordinary novel, however, nothing could be further from the truth. It's not just a wonderful story; it's also an expressionist masterpiece, almost surreal at times. It's also an amazing feat of empathy, for it is written almost entirely through the eyes of two women: the sisters Sophia and Constance Baines, who grow up in a draper's shop in the Midlands. Through the small and large turbulence of their lives we participate in the upheavals that created our contemporary world - the birth of mass production, mass transport, advertising, tourism, and much more, for we follow them through childhood in the mid-Victorian era through to the birth of the 20th century, and take in the Franco-Prussian war and the Siege of Paris on the way. It's also very intimate, and highly emotional. In fact, it's the perfect novel, and I'm trying to adapt it for TV so that a new generation will be introduced to it.

Deborah Moggach's new novel, 'These Foolish Things', is published by Chatto & Windus;

The Old Wives' Tale has also recently been dramatised for Radio 4 by Stephen Wyatt.

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