The Old Wives’ Tale, by Arnold Bennett – A Quick Summary



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“Always behave as if you were quite calm, however much agitated you may really be; but do not merely seem calm, really be calm.”

– Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale


This concise summary provides a comprehensive look at “The Old Wives’ Tale” by Arnold Bennett. We delve into the rich tapestry of its character development, thematic explorations, and unique blend of the ordinary with extraordinary, making it a classic treasure of English literature.

Book Information:

Title: The Old Wives’ Tale
Author: Arnold Bennett
Genre: Fiction, Realism
Year Published: 1908

Brief Overview:

“The Old Wives’ Tale” is an engrossing exploration of two sisters’ lives from youth to old age, dissecting their personal journeys, relationships, and the impact of societal change on their existence.


Author’s Background:

Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was an accomplished British novelist, playwright, and critic. Known for his realistic depictions of life in the Five Towns of Staffordshire, he sought to portray the provincial life in the heart of England, demonstrating a keen understanding of human nature.

Publication Context:

“The Old Wives’ Tale” was published at the peak of Bennett’s writing career and is considered one of his most acclaimed works. Its detailed portrayal of ordinary life, set against the backdrop of significant historical events, marked a distinct departure from typical early 20th century literature.

Character Summary

Main Characters:

The book primarily revolves around two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, and their experiences through youth, adulthood, and old age. They are the daughters of Mrs. Baines, a widow and shop owner.

Character Development:

Constance remains in the town where they were born, living a peaceful, conventional life, while Sophia elopes to Paris, embarking on a tumultuous journey filled with highs and lows. Despite their different paths, both characters embody the resilience of the human spirit.

Plot Summary


The story follows Constance and Sophia from their youth in a small provincial town in England to their later years, highlighting their personal growth, experiences, and the changes that time brings in their lives.


The story is primarily set in Burslem, one of the ‘Five Towns’ of Stoke-on-Trent in England, and Paris, France, during the late 19th and early 20th century, against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune.

Themes and Motifs

Key Themes:

Key themes include the passage of time, changes brought about by societal progress, and the enduring power of ordinary lives.

Motifs and Symbols:

The book consistently utilizes motifs such as time, provincial vs. cosmopolitan life, and the human capacity for endurance.

Takeaway Morals


The novel offers insights into the importance of resilience, the inevitability of change, and the profound significance of seemingly ordinary lives.


The moral lessons resonate in our contemporary society, reminding us to appreciate the simplicity of life, to be adaptable to changes, and to endure hardships with courage.


Literary Devices:

Bennett employs the use of detailed realism, dramatic irony, and vivid imagery to bring the characters and setting to life.

Style and Tone:

Bennett’s writing style is highly descriptive and meticulous, with an empathetic tone that imparts a sense of authenticity to the characters’ experiences.

Critical Reception

Initial Reception:

Initially, the book was highly praised for its realistic portrayal of provincial life, and Bennett’s focus on minute details was lauded as a significant contribution to English literature.

Current Standing:

Today, “The Old Wives’ Tale” is regarded as a classic of English literature and a masterful exploration of human lives touched by the passage of time and societal change.

My Thoughts

Personal Opinion:

“The Old Wives’ Tale” was a joy to read. It’s like getting lost in a crowd, only to realise that you’ve been at a costume party where life itself was the master of ceremonies. The tale of Constance and Sophia felt like a marathon relay race with time, where each sister passed the baton to the next decade.

It was a whirlwind of laugh-out-loud moments intertwined with poignant reflections. The book is much like a perfectly brewed English tea – a tinge of bitterness, a lot of sweet, and filled to the brim with warmth!

Personal Recommendation:

If you’ve ever found yourself pondering the passage of time, or staring at a grandparent and thinking, “I wonder what stories those eyes hold,” then this book is for you. Bennett masterfully weaves the story of two ordinary women living through extraordinary times, capturing their journey with humour, poignancy, and an authenticity that resonates.

So grab a cup of tea, find a cosy nook, and prepare to be transported through time with “The Old Wives’ Tale.” Be ready to laugh, to sigh, and above all, to see life through the eyes of two wonderfully ordinary women.

About the Author


Arnold Bennett was born in 1867 in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. He spent a part of his life in France, which influenced his literary work. Bennett was not only a prolific writer but also an insightful critic and a public figure who contributed significantly to the War Propaganda Bureau during World War I.

Literary Career:

Bennett’s literary career was expansive, encompassing novels, plays, and non-fiction. Some of his notable works include “Anna of the Five Towns,” “Clayhanger,” and “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.”

Book Details

Publication Details:

The Old Wives’ Tale was first published in 1908 by Chapman & Hall in London.

Structural Details:

The book comprises 715 pages and is divided into four books, each representing a distinct phase of the sisters’ lives.



“The Old Wives’ Tale” is an extraordinary exploration of ordinary life, marked by Bennett’s keen understanding of human nature and the passage of time. Its detailed, realistic portrayal of Constance and Sophia’s lives and their societal context make it a standout piece of English literature.

Final Thoughts:

“The Old Wives’ Tale” is more than just a story; it’s a rich tapestry of life, brimming with human spirit. Arnold Bennett masterfully captures the essence of life’s many phases, illuminating the charm of the ordinary, the sting of the extraordinary, and the constant ticking of time.

This book reminds us of the resilience within us all, urging us to cherish the simplicity of life and adapt to the winds of change. Truly, a timeless literary masterpiece that continues to enchant readers of all ages.

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