Mother’s Day: The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

published 1908 this section set around 1870

book 2 chapter 3


[Constance and Samuel Povey have a new baby, Cyril]

When the baby was installed in his cot for the night, she came downstairs. She sat down, leaving the door open at the foot of the stairs….Then she would raise her head and listen…

[The baby starts crying]

“He must cry," said Mr. Povey, rapidly, without looking up.

"I've made perfectly sure he's comfortable," said Constance. "He's only crying because he fancies he's neglected.” That distant, feeble, querulous, pitiful cry continued obstinately. It continued for thirty minutes. Constance could not proceed with her work. The cry disintegrated her will, dissolved her hard sagacity. Without a word she crept upstairs. Mr. Povey hesitated a moment and then bounded up after her. He saw Constance with her hand on the bedroom door.

"My dear girl," he protested, holding himself in. "Now what ARE you going to do?"

"I'm just listening," said Constance.

"Do be reasonable and come downstairs”

"Suppose he's not well?" Constance suggested.

"Pshaw!" Mr. Povey exclaimed contemptuously. "You remember what happened last night and what you said!" They argued, subduing their tones to the false semblance of goodwill, there in the closeness of the corridor. The baby's cry, behind the door, rose to a mysterious despairing howl, which had such an effect on Constance's heart that she could have walked through fire to reach the baby.

[They are interrupted, and Mr Povey is called away]

She turned the door-knob softly, slowly, and crept into the chamber. A nightlight made large shadows among the heavy mahogany and the crimson, tasselled rep in the close-curtained room. And between the bed and the ottoman (on which lay Samuel's newly-bought family Bible) the cot loomed in the shadows. She picked up the night-light and stole round the bed. Yes, he had decided to fall asleep. …Fate had bested him. How marvellously soft and delicate that tear-stained cheek! How frail that tiny, tiny clenched hand! In Constance grief and joy were mystically united.

observations: Surely all parents will recognize this scene, and it is somehow reassuring that this was going on 150 years ago, and presumably farther back to the beginnings of time. The Old Wives' Tale provided a handful of entries on the blog a while back, and I said then what an under-rated writer Bennett is: he is seen as very middle-brow, popular enough in his day of course, but nothing more than that. But this book has a whole world in it, right from the unlikely opening page which describes its setting near a hill ‘famous for its religious orgies’ at a time when ‘garroting was the chief amusement of the homicidal classes’, although nothing later in the book has much to do with this. But the story takes us through the long normal-but-complicated lives of the two young women within – one staying close to home, the other wandering to Paris – to a satisfying conclusion. The women characters are terrific, and the mother-child relations throughout, by no means always smooth, are convincing and delightful, making it the ideal choice for Mother’s Day.

I loved this, as a daughter walks into the kitchen where her mother is busy baking:

"Put this curl straight," said Mrs. Baines, lowering her head slightly and holding up her floured hands, which might not touch anything but flour.
That’s the work of an observant man, and one who likes women, mothers, and daughters.

And a Happy Mother’s Day to all. 

The picture is called Master Baby (most certainly what this little boy becomes) and is by Sir William Quiller Orchardson from the Athenaeum website. Of course the baby in the book is asleep (in the end) but this picture seemed the perfect representation of a mother focussing totally and happily on her child.

Last year's Mother's Day entry was from Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (mother defending her child): in 2012 the book was I Capture the Castle - let's hear if for Topaz, a great stepmother.


  1. Moira, you make a fine case for Arnold Bennett's fiction. I have, in fact, downloaded a couple of his ebooks legally and free on the internet though I'm yet to read them. He was a prolific writer and the titles of some of his books does make you want to read them right away.

    1. Thanks Prashant: I think he's a very good writer, and it is easy to get hold of his books for free, as you say. I certainly intend to read more.

  2. A flying visit today - I have left the sanctuary of the library for the kitchen. Mr K. is cooking! Under pressure......

    1. Very pleased to hear that Col. I have been having a very relaxed day myself....

  3. Moira - Yes, this is definitely a scene with which a lot of parents can identify. And I like the way that Bennett treats Constance's concerns with respect even though her husband doesn't share them. That's a nice touch, especially considering the era. Here's to all mothers and stepmothers!

    1. Yes indeed Margot. And as I imply above, I find it comforting that parental issues haven't changed much over the years, and that such an old-school writer could have such modern proto-feminist views.

  4. Very nice mother's day post. I am glad you reminded me of I Capture the Castle. I must read that someday.

    1. Thanks Tracy. I Capture the Castle is one of my top 10 ever books, so I recommend it highly.

  5. It's years since I read this. Thanks for reminding me how good it is.

    1. I'm sure I'll read it again one day - when I'm retired and have lots of time to re-read all the books I really loved...


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