This delightful book is far too short, though according to the Preface of "The Old Wives' Tale" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/350606474), it "was received with majestic indifference by the British public"!
Note 1: Comments that may look like spoilers actually tell you less than the blurb on the back of the book.
Note 2: The title is entirely metaphorical; this is not a book for lovers of the macabre. It is a tragi-comic satire about identity, inhibition, love, the meaning and value of art, and the institutions of state, church, media and courts. It is whimsical, but not merely that; there is a decent plot as well.
Priam Farll is a wealthy, successful Edwardian artist (shortly before WW1) who is cripplingly shy. He lives the life of a recluse, mainly in Europe, with his valet, Henry Leek. He is not, initially, a sympathetic character, but he rapidly became one.
The story opens quixotically, "The peculiar angle of the earth's axis to the plan of the ecliptic - that angle which is chiefly responsible for our geography and therefore our history - had caused the phenomenon known in London as summer." The power of destiny is reinforced by other astronomical analogies, including, "Up in the corners of the ceiling, obscure in the eclipse of the cardboard shade, was a complicated system of cobwebs."
Priam accidentally takes on the identity of Leek, and finds that although he gains some liberation, there are problems too (some unpleasant, and others comic). "He had wanted to be free, and free he was... But it appeared to him very remarkable that so much could happen, in so short a time, as the result of a momentary impulsive prevarication".
Shyness is painful, "There were moments with him when he could not speak lest his should should come out of his mouth and flit irrevocably away", but not simple: "Like all shy people he had fits of amazing audacity", but not necessarily when he most needs them, and his audacious side can create situations that his shy side then struggles to overcome.
Nevertheless, love, anonymity and ordinary middle class common sense come to his rescue. When things get tricky, he catches "a disconcerting glimpse of the depths of utter unscrupulousness that sometimes disclose themselves in the mind of a good and loving woman".
Priam's art is distinctive, but what is the value of the art itself, or is it the name of the artist that creates the value? Does it even matter, and if so, to whom? And can a great artist cease to create or else change their style to an unrecognisable degree? "An imitation that no one can distinguish from the original is naturally as good as the original" - or is it?
One assumes Priam's true identity will be revealed, and there are several ways it could happen. Even when it becomes a cause celebre in court, it is not clear what will be believed. Bennett has fun with this stage of the story, combining grand theatricality with raw economics. Cases drag on because "actors engaged at a hundred a day for the run of the piece do not crack whips behind experts engaged at ten or twenty a day". Only one person is immune to intimidation of the occasion (and it's not Priam).
"All that he [Priam] demanded from the world was peace and quietness, and the world would not grant him these inexpensive commodities". But there is always art. "He could neither talk well nor read well... He could only express himself at the end of a brush... In minor ways he may have been, upon occasion, a fool. But he was never a fool on canvass... Why expect more of him? One does not expect a wire-walker to play fine billiards." I would love to take him under my wing, nourish his genius, and protect him from the world - except that I wouldn't manage to overthrow the indomitable Alice.
Lines that captured my imagination:
* A house of "perfect inconvenience" with lights that "were silently proving that man's ingenuity can outwit Nature" (i.e. night).
* The down of a dressing gown was "warm as the smile of a kind heart".
* The role of a doctor is "curing imaginary ailments by means of medicine and suggestion, and leaving real ailments to nature aided by coloured water".
* "A magnificent woman whose youth was slipping off her polished shoulders like a cloak." "She was a woman who, as it were, ran out to meet you when you started to cross the dangerous roadway which separated the two sexes."
* There are wonderful descriptions of Priam's first encounter with the Underground (metro) and its lifts (elevators): "another cage rose into the tunnel... vomited its captives, and descended quickly... and threw him [Priam] and the rest out into a white mine consisting of numberless galleries. He ran about these interminable galleries... at the bidding of painted hands... and occasionally magic trains without engines swept across his vision."
* "Waiters who were trying to force them to depart by means of thought transference and uneasy hovering around their table."
* "The room was ugly in a pleasant Putneyish way... a too realistic wallpaper... a carpet with the characteristics of a retired governess who has taken to drink."
* Smart trousers had a crease "which seemed more than mortal".
* "He said this with a very agreeable mingling of sincerity, deference, and mercantile directness."
* Shades of Wilde: "To cultivate and nourish a grievance when you have five hundred pounds in your pocket, in cash, is the most difficult thing in the world."
* "It nettled him [lawyer], too, merely to see a witness standing in the box just as if she were standing in her kitchen talking to a tradesman at the door."