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The Old Wives’ Tale
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The Old Wives’ Tale, considered to be one of Bennett’s finest works, begins in the 1860s, in the industrial “Five Towns” of the English Midlands, where he set many of his partially-autobiographical stories.
The novel follows the prosperous Baines family, who live above the successful clothing shop they own in the town of Bursley (based on Burslem, in Staffordshire). Even when the two Baines daughters were still young, their characters are already formed. Sophia has “youth, beauty, and rank in her favour,” while Constance is “foolishly good-natured,” with benevolence that is “eternally rising up and overpowering her reason.”
Their paths diverge quickly. While still in her teens, the headstrong Sophia elopes with a traveling salesman, leaving England’s provinces for Paris. Constance, who later marries the head employee at the store, hardly ever leaves their town—or even the square where their shop is located. As the novelist J. B. Priestley observed, this gently ironic and sprawling novel sets its “two suffering heroines” against “three conquering heroes, Time, Mutability, and Death.”
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