Sunday, January 24, 2010

# 87 The Old Wives’ Tale – Arnold Bennett

“You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

This pregnant phrase’s postpartum course straddled the English Channel. Its originator was possibly Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, or French General Aimable-Jean-Jacques Pélissier (according to British military man George Cavendish Taylor), or the French revolutionary Maximilien Francois Robespierre.

The centathlete broke exactly three eggs to make Omelette Arnold Bennett to celebrate the reading of the English author’s 1908 novel, The Old Wives’ Tale, and to honor a man worthy enough to have a dish named after him. Featuring smoked haddock and hollandaise sauce, the meal was a favorite of Bennett’s when he lived in 1930 at London’s Savoy Hotel, where he was an esteemed regular with an insider’s knowledge of the institution, according to John Potter, chairman of the Arnold Bennett Society:
“…[Bennett] frequented the hotel for some twenty years, getting to know as friends some of the key figures in its history, including George Reeves Smith, managing director for many years and Richmond Temple, the publicity chief. It was Temple who, in 1927, took AB on an extensive tour of the Savoy, from top to bottom through all the many service departments.”

Bennett typically enjoyed his Savoy omelette “…after an evening at the theatre,” per Helen Watson, who calls the creation “elaborate but delicious, perhaps like Bennett's rich Victorian prose.” The recipes for Omelette Arnold Bennett are like snowflakes: legion and similar but not identical. The suggested cheese can be Cheddar, Parmesan, Emmental, Comte or Gruyere. The centathlete opted for the latter and followed the BBC’s recipe.

One radiant soul knows that the centathlete’s profound ineptitude in the kitchen is surpassed only by indifference; she had already arrayed ingredients and cookware when he tramped home after work with his wrapped haddock filet, acquired at Freeman’s Fish Market in Maplewood. Wavering before the countertop and range, the centathlete was then blessed to receive encouragement and invaluable direction—and his wife doesn’t even eat fish or omelettes (or omelets)!

As an admirer of essentially all nourishment within the Seafood and Egg categories, the centathlete was predisposed to savor Omelette Arnold Bennett—and he certainly did. The poached and flaked haddock established a mild and meaty foundation. The hollandaise sauce, browned after a few minutes in the broiler, acted like a tasty cheesy blanket not unlike the topping of French Onion Soup (as the radiant soul observed). Parsley and pepper punctuated the dish and saved it from an overarching creamy blandness.

Once this gastronomic stop on the centathlon was digested, we were able to readdress its inspiration. The novel The Old Wives’ Tale, like our introductory phrase, is an English-French work, following the Baines sisters between Staffordshire and Paris, and it was written by an Englishman while living in France.

Like most Yankees the centathlete was ignorant of Arnold Bennett and his hometown of The Potteries (a.k.a. The Five Towns or Stoke-on-Trent) in Staffordshire, England. With a dense industrial landscape sprouting furnaces that resemble bottles or stalagmites, as seen in an eerily gothic BBC video from the 1950’s, The Potteries spawned the companies of Wedgwood, Spode and more than 1500 other concerns beginning in the early 1700’s.

In those years the colonial British suppressed large-scale American pottery, like other manufacturing. Centers developed, though not of the scale of The Potteries. In 1840 one Staffordshire potter, James Bennett (no relation to Arnold?), traveled to East Liverpool, OH and built its first kiln. He was followed by others and the town became known in the late 1800’s as “The Pottery Capital of America” according to its Museum of Ceramics.

The industry has declined there since 1930 but hangs on. Some years ago a local high school student took umbrage when the dean “…suggested [he] take a job at the steel mill or pottery plant.” Lou Holtz went on to become a celebrated college football coach, idiosyncratic motivator, and East Liverpool’s famous son with his own hall of fame.

“I can't believe that God put us on this earth to be ordinary,” quoth Coach Holtz, who has probably delivered several thousand pep talks to youngsters and adults to be all that they can be. Arnold Bennett, as an artist, took a different tack: he breathed genius and transcendence into the commonplace. According to, “Bennett believed in ordinary people…Bennett made simple things and ordinary people interesting.”

The Old Wives’ Tale follows the lives of the Baines sisters, who are remarkable, or unremarkable, as most of us are. Bennett’s “treatment” of characters like Constance and Sophia Baines is developed and slow-moving.

In his tale Bennett introduces great historical events and the onsets of romantic adventures—and then allows them to pass without impacting his narrow-minded heroines. We envision him rolling in tires (The Paris Commune, Sophia’s elopement to Paris, the potential of Cyril), watching them deflate, and contemplating the hiss. A notable tire, so to speak, is the Siege of Paris, which the Prussians conducted from September 1870 to January 1871.

Sophia Baines, as a heroine “utterly absorbed in doing one single thing,” is unaffected by the siege because she is engrossed in managing her pension. Her hedgehog existence dramatizes Bennett’s “perception,” noted in his preface, that “ordinary people went on living ordinary lives during the siege, and that to the vast mass of the population the siege was not the dramatic, spectacular, thrilling, ecstatic affair that is described in history.”

Such a view can be confirmed by many of us fairly easy. For example, the centathlete lived in Manhattan three miles from the World Trade Center on 9/11; on several occasions people from other parts of the country have asked “what was it like?” The reality is that he knew only one person who worked there (the friend got out unharmed but had a harrowing time) and watched the towers burn from afar, then fall on TV. Later that day and in following weeks travel to the site was prohibited, so for the centathlete it was the smell (at the time emphatically suggesting onsite toxicity) and the poignant memorials (the walls of messages from schoolchildren across the country, the moving vigil at Union Square) that comprised his essentially passive experience of the event…

While Paris was under siege, a real-life Frenchman was preoccupied, though not quite in the manner of Sophia Baines. Arthur Rimbaud, savage and pubescent, turned 16 on October 20, 1870, 145 miles to the northeast in Charleville. He witnessed the Prussian destruction of Mézières, and he used the images in his visionary poetry.

As Paris experienced unrest after its defeat, Sophia toiled in her pension and Arthur traveled to Paris. In his biography, Rimbaud, Graham Robb suggests that the teen didn’t mind at all seeing eggs broken to make a different kind of omelette:

“Rimbaud had come to see his heroes… the heroic revolutionary fringe: men who had reached adulthood without losing their sense of humour or their taste for destruction.”

In March 1871 came the Commune, the bloody two-month reign that would inspire future revolutionaries. Sophia Baines was “vexed” but “not very much intimidated by it” and the period is referenced and dismissed tidily in one paragraph in The Old Wives’ Tale. In contrast, Arthur Rimbaud was far from inconvenienced, he was invigorated. He was in Paris “to witness the dawn of a new age,” according to Robb, in a “search for loose structures and temporary commitments that could serve as a nomadic base for the imagination.”

While the Communards burned the guillotine, abolished state payments for religious concerns, prohibited night work by bakers, and then died en masse at the hands of the army, Rimbaud was busy turning himself into a “seer.” Meanwhile, Sophia Baines “watched every sou, and [she] developed a tendency to demand from her tenants all that they could pay.” This narrative aside and others render her and her sister Constance less sympathetic and less heroic, even though we grant the wives their mitigating life circumstances and Bennett his verisimilitude.

The oldest wife the centathlete has ever known is his grandmother, who celebrated her 100th birthday in November. Anne Elizabeth was born in 1909, one year after The Old Wives’ Tale was published, when William Howard Taft was president. Although she has always been known as “Betty,” the staff of her assisted living facility calls her “Anne.” This misidentification irks the centathlete but not his grandmother, who is hale, mobile, and usually in a state of bemused awareness.

Her father was a stonecutter specializing in tombstones and monuments. She and her three brothers (there was a sister who died as an infant), grew up in Ridgewood, then a German neighborhood of New York City. Betty's chore at the age of five was to fetch the milk each morning from the nearby farm—it’s difficult to imagine that when driving in Queens today.

In The Old Wives’ Tale Arnold Bennett gave his sophisticated Edwardian readers a sense of life in a simpler time 40-60 years earlier. Constance and Sophia take horse-carts to other towns and castor-oil cures. They occupy chairs with antimacassars.

Betty’s family was musical and she actively participated. To this day she can play strains from “Till We Meet Again” (popular in 1918) on the piano and, on her ukulele, the smash hit from 1933, “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii.” As a teenager she went to Drake Business School and became a legal secretary in Manhattan. She worked at Mutual Insurance of New York and was supervisor of the stenography pool.

Betty was a wage-earner, as were Constance and Sophia Baines. Husbands appeared for all three, but these women were all ultimately breadwinners. That daily responsibility, especially for a mother, can inculcate a strength and rigidity of backbone, which the Baineses certainly display.

In 1938 Betty married William, who subsequently fought in World War II and the Battle of the Bulge, and afterward never discussed it with anyone. He worked for the post office. In the postwar years Betty’s daughter and son were her joys. She returned to work at Wellington Bank on Long Island. She was an assistant manager at several banks, and she and her family relocated to Huntington. Unlike the fictional Baines sisters, who had servants, Betty cooked and handled the housekeeping in addition to her full-time job.

In 1973, Betty retired and her husband died. They had been married for 35 years. Her husband has largely faded out of the collective memory (he is seldom referenced), due to circumstance, the passage of time, and perhaps a relative faintness of charisma or accomplishment (hard to say for one who doesn’t remember him). Arnold Bennett understood this kind of posthumous evanescence, and that it is more likely to happen to men who while living did not make sufficient deposits in the accounts of Family Pride, Town Pride and County Pride.

Betty left New York and bought a home in western Connecticut, an area she had always admired. This was a characteristic act of independence for her, a woman in her sixties. In The Old Wives’ Tale Sophia tries to persuade Constance to leave Bursley for life with her in a hotel. Constance won’t go—so they both stay in The Potteries. As we age, we appreciate the pathos of that decision and the perspectives of both sisters.

In her advanced years Constance Baines is serially disappointed by her only child, Cyril. Self-absorbed, prideful and insensitive (though to a moderate extent), he can’t manage to visit or correspond with his mother as diligently as he should. Betty's son has not managed to visit or call her in years; no direct cause is known for this estrangement. We might pause here to elaborate on an appropriate perdition for this small man (Sophia’s scoundrel husband Gerald is a small man) but the centathlon is long, our subjects are good-humored, and ordinary life is beautiful, as Arnold Bennett shows us.

Betty now lives in Pennsylvania to be near her daughter. She likes to laugh and make others laugh. When you ask her how she’s doing, she chuckles and says, “I haven’t flung my last fling yet!”

That makes us want to fling some eggs in a pan. Where’s that haddock?

Next up: The Great Gatsby.