A simple concept of parallels and contrasts in the lives of sisters, carefully told with gentle irony. It starts in 1864 when Constance and Sophia are 16 and 15 respectively and follows them to the end of their lives. Book 1 covers their teenage years together above and in a draper’s shop in a small town in the Staffordshire Potteries (central England). Book 2 is in the same location, but focuses on Constance. Book 3 is set in Paris during great political upheaval and war, and is about Sophia. In book 4, the two threads come together again. Bennett modelled it on the great realistic French novels of the time (Balzac, Flaubert et al); in some ways it is very mundane, and yet the attention to detail is extraordinary and compelling. As an elderly Sophia muses, “My life has been so queer – and yet every part of it separately seemed ordinary enough.”
It opens with a description of the bucolic countryside, observing “But though Constance and Sophia were in it they were not of it” because “no person who lives in the district… ever thinks about the county”, even though it’s so much pleasanter than the busy, dirty town. They are the only children of a bedridden but successful and respected draper whose hatred of “puffing” meant he refused to replace the fallen shop sign lest he “condone, yea, to participate in, the modern craze for unscrupulous self-advertisement”. The draper’s shop and home is their world, and yet their lives end up taking very different paths.
Sometimes the contrasts are more parallel than they first seem, and I think this is an aspect that bears further thought and eventual rereading. Constance spends her whole life in the town, living a traditional life as dutiful daughter, wife, mother and widow, whereas Sophia spends many years in France, surviving the Siege of Paris and building independent success. Their lives seem so different, and for Sophia, there is an aspect of missing England when she’s in France and vice versa. However, despite the apparent exoticism of her life, she comes to realise that her “life, in its way, had been as narrow as Constance’s. Though her experience of humanity was wide… she had been utterly absorbed in doing one single thing.”
I think the only weak point was some aspects of the ending, but in such a long and wonderful book, it's only a minor issue.
The sisters are deliberately treated equally: their workboxes “were different but one was not more magnificent than the other. Indeed, a rigid equality was the rule” and yet “in some subtle way, Constance had a standing with her parents which was more confidential than Sofia’s”. This is clear when Mrs Baines confides in Constance about her problems with Sophia: “her tone was peculiar, charged with import, confidential, and therefore very flattering to Constance.”
They are close, though they have very different temperaments, with Sophia being the more mischievous and “a prey ripe for the evil one”. She is clever, proud, shrewd with money, independent and obstinate; she would rather suffer than beg or ask for forgiveness. Constance is… suited to her name, like the continuity and familiarity in her life. She is more dutiful and happy to assume she will go into the shop, but Sophia “had always hated the shop. She did not understand how her mother and Constance could bring themselves to be deferential and flattering to every customer that entered”.
Their teenage banter, mild naughtiness (trying on mother’s new dress) and sneering at a servant from afar could easily be transplanted to teenage sisters anywhere or when. Curiously, their adult relationship seems more like something from a historical novel than their childhood one.
IS BLINDNESS THE PRICE OF LOVE?
A recurring theme is the wilful blindness of love, be that of a parent, spouse or even another relative. All the main characters suffer for it in different ways, though one finally acknowledges the truth to herself, if not to others, and “her affection was unimpaired”. Can a child of less than five be bad? Is it “hidden sullenness or mere callous indifference, or a perfect unconsciousness of sin?” And is it misguided to say “If we can be happy only when I give way to him, I must give way to him”? However, that is hard to maintain: “She lived for nothing but to please him; he was, however, exceedingly difficult to please, not in the least because he was hypocritical and exacting, but because he was indifferent… whereas he was the whole of her universe, she was merely a dim figure in the background of his.”
MODERNITY AND FEMININE INSIGHT?
The book has a curiously modern feeling in some ways. In particular, Sophia’s teenage rebellion doesn’t feel like something from a Victorian novel (though this was written in Edwardian times), either in terms of what she says, or what she does. When defiant, she is sullen and evasive, exhibits a “diffident boldness”, plays the fairness card (“Oh, of course Constance is always right”), answers back with excessive logic (“You tell me not to answer back, and they you say you’re waiting”) and declares “You all want to make me miserable… Put me in prison if you like! I know you’d be glad if I was dead!”. One confrontation end when, “with a brusque precipitation of herself, vanished upstairs”. I’m sure most modern readers have been involved in such conversations.
Although written by a man, all the main characters are women, but they are convincingly and insightfully rendered. For example, Constance’s feelings after her honeymoon are delicately but touchingly described: “She sat there full of new knowledge and new importance, brimming with experience and strange, unexpected aspirations, purposes, yes - and cunnings!...You could see the timid thing [old, virginal Constance] peeping wistfully out of the eyes of the married woman.” And the all-encompassing love of a new mother for her baby, she “dived into the recesses of the perambulator and extricated from its cocoon the centre of the universe, and scrutinised him with quiet passion.” The awkwardness of breastfeeding in front of others, and the stresses of controlled crying (not that it’s called that) are also discussed.
At a more trivial level, problems with builders promises, timescales and workmanship are timeless, and the etiquette of all-you-can-eat fare troubled even Edwardians, apparently: the delicate dilemma of “fixed price per day for as much as they can consume while observing the rules of the game… in an instant decided how much they could decently take, and to what extent they could practise the theoretical liberty of choice… they had the right to seize all that was present under their noses, like genteel tigers; and they had the right to refuse; that was all.”
(In contrast, it is very Victorian in the way that women can be laid low by severe shock or a bit of a chill.)
In the Preface, Bennett says “it is an absolute rule that the principal characters of a novel must not be unsympathetic”. I don’t necessarily agree, but he stuck to his principle in this, and the others of his that I have read, which is not to say that his characters are flat or saccharine. And he has no such qualms where some of the minor male characters are concerned.
• “It is to be remembered that in those days Providence was still busying himself [yes, him] with everybody’s affairs.”
• The wakes (regional festival) were “an orgiastic carnival, gross in all its manifestations of joy. The whole centre of the town was given over to the furious pleasures of the people… displaying all the delights of the horrible.”
• “She was athirst for sympathy in the task of scorning everything local.”
• Typical Bennett: “One of Maggie’s deepest instincts, always held in check by the dominance of Mrs Baines, was to leave pails prominent on the main routes of the house: and now, divining what was at hand, it flamed into insurrection.”
• Dr Harrop was “common sense in breeches”.
• When Mr Scales mentioned his fox-terrier bitch, he “had no suspicion that he was transgressing a convention by virtue of which dogs have no sex” (and I wonder if any Edwardian readers would have balked at Bennett’s use of the word “sex”).
• Be careful what may be overheard by servants, “A clumsy question might enlighten a member of the class which ought ever be enlightened about one’s private affairs”.
• “The era of good old-fashioned Christmases, so agreeably picturesque for the poor, was not yet at an end.”
• “The remarkable notion that twelve thousand pounds represents the infinity of wealth, that this sum possessed special magical properties which rendered it insensible to the process of subtraction.”
• “Good clothes, when put to the test, survive a change in fortune, as a Roman arch survives the luxury of departed empire.”
• “The irrational obstinacy of a physically weak man who sticks to it that he can defy the laws of nature.”
• Bennett loves writing about hotels, and says “critically examining newcomers was one of the amusements of the occupants of the lounge.”
• “The patched and senile drabness of the [hotel] bedroom.”
• You can tell respectable hotel guests because “their clothes… did not flatter the lust of the eye”.
• “The respectability of a luxury private hotel makes proper every act that passes within its walls.”