Friday, 9 March 2012


Sophia began to be teased by a little fear that Gerald was not his usual self. She did not think of him as tipsy. The idea of his being tipsy would have shocked her. She did not think clearly at all. She was lost and dazed in the labyrinth of new and vivid impressions into which Gerald had led her. But her prudence was awake.
Arnold Bennett (1867 – 1931) - The Old Wive's Tale

For those who haven't read the book, Sophia is a beautiful young Victorian woman, born and bred in the Five Towns (now Stoke on Trent). Her world is her mother's draper's shop, but she rejects the narrow confines of this middle class life to elope with Gerald Scales, a wealthy but foolish and unreliable commercial traveller. This is her first taste of a glitzy Parisian restaurant.

If we return to B F Skinner's observation on writers who seem to show a grasp of human behavior which is beyond the methods of science, I think we see what he meant, what we all know to be true, from just one of Bennett's sentences.

But her prudence was awake.

In spite of Sophia's rebellious nature, her background is important too and this reaction to Parisian glitz is entirely within character. For me, this one sentence sums up the lasting effect of Sophia's provincial upbringing, a moral history which cannot be described as accurately or as neatly in scientific language.

Stimulus, response and reinforcement are all there as Bennett unveils Sophia's character, but he does it more fully and more to the point, more credibly than any technical narrative. Not only that, but I suspect this will always be the case as long as we value and seek to encourage the art of good writing.


Anonymous said...

Echos of W H Hunt's painting 'The Awakening Concience'. The Victorians had a bit of an obsession with 'don't enjoy yourself - pleasure has to be paid for'. Bennet nicely catches the importance of 'position' and 'upbringing' in Victorian society. Writing and painting are indeed better tools for this job than a calculator.

What a horrible crabbed place that seems now - a vicious game of Snakes & Ladders.

A K Haart said...

Roger - a vicious game of snakes and ladders is an apt description and Bennett brings it out well without labouring the point.

Skinner can't use imagery like this and I think that's what he was getting at.

Demetrius said...

Grandma urged me to read Bennett, which I did with great pleasure. But then she was born in Hanley in the 1870's.

A K Haart said...

D - a grim area for many I imagine. With the kilns going full bore it must have been quite a sight if you weren't poor and working among them.