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The Old Wives' Tale

Narrated by: David Haig
Length: 24 hrs and 7 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (117 ratings)

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Summary

Exclusively from Audible 

'An old woman came into the restaurant to dine. She was fat, shapeless, ugly, and grotesque. She had a ridiculous voice, and ridiculous gestures. It was easy to see that she lived alone, and that in the long lapse of years she had developed the kind of peculiarity which induces guffaws among the thoughtless. 

I reflected, concerning the grotesque diner: "This woman was once young, slim, perhaps beautiful; certainly free from these ridiculous mannerisms. Very probably she is unconscious of her singularities. Her case is a tragedy. One ought to be able to make a heartrending novel out of the history of a woman such as she."' 

So said Arnold Bennett when explaining what inspired the creation of The Old Wives' Tale

Broken up into four parts, the lives of two sisters are laid bare; one timid and unassuming, the other romantic and adventurous. From working as children in their family's drapery shop to their later years, Constance and Sophia's journey through life could not be more different. While one travels the world and defies male expectations, the other becomes a dutiful wife and mother. 

Despite this, Bennett's skilful and witty narrative ultimately leads our protagonists in the same direction, making The Old Wives' Tale an intriguing interpretation of the circle of life and, unsurprisingly, his most popular work. 

Arnold Bennett wrote over 20 novels and 10 plays, including Anna of the Five Towns, Clayhanger, These Twain, Hilda Lessways and Buried Alive. In June 2017, to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery commissioned a bronze statue of the author. He was elegantly immortalised sitting in a chair and holding an open book in his left hand. 

Narrator Biography 

David Haig is a classically trained actor, writer and LAMDA graduate. His film appearances include Two Weeks' Notice, Florence Foster-Jenkins and Four Weddings and a Funeral

He wrote The Good Samaritan which opened at the Hampstead Theatre in 2000 to great reviews. His first script, entitled My Boy Jack, had also been performed at the Hampstead Theatre in 1997 and later broadcast on ITV, starring David Haig and Daniel Radcliffe. 

Haig's theatre credits include Our Country's Good, for which he won a Laurence Olivier Theatre Award, Tom and Viv, which took him to Broadway, and the musicals Mary Poppins and Guys and Dolls

His notable television roles in series such as Doctor Who, The Darling Buds of May, The Thin Blue Line, and Penny Dreadful have also been exemplary of his varied acting skills and dynamic voice. 

Other than The Old Wives Tale, David has also contributed to the narration of The National Archives' In Their Own Words: A History in Letters

Public Domain (P)2014 Audible, Inc.

What members say

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Slow down and let yourself go

For the first hour or so I wasn't at all sure I liked this audiobook. Arnold Bennett seemed to witter on a lot and while the reader was good at accents, he was a bit over-dramatic for my taste I thought. Gradually I got drawn in further and further however. I got completely absorbed in the tale of Constance and then the tale of Sophia. Not only was this a riveting story; sometimes Bennett's observations on the way human beings think and react were so accurate and timeless it was breathtaking. I now agree it's a masterpiece.

21 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Masterly narration by David Haig

This is a superb work. Bennett‘s sweep of social history in provincial Bursley during the Victorian era is enlightened at all points by gentle irony and sardonic wit. The section which describes the Siege of Paris is fascinating and conveys a picture of conditions under the Siege which is quite different from that which we often imagine. The characterisation is masterly. The contrasting characters of the two sisters are portrayed with sympathy and understanding and the supporting characters are no less compelling. This really is compulsive listening – you won’t want to stop once you have started. David Haig’s narration is superb – his intonation and inflections convey the tone of the work perfectly - and what a joy it is to hear a narrator whose pronunciation of the French language is impeccable! I cannot praise this audio book highly enough.

17 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Wonderful story

I love Arnold Bennett. He tells a great story, bringing out the romance of people in and from a rather grim Victorian Potteries town. Immerse yourself in his world and let yourself go. It's a compliment to say I didn't notice the narration.

11 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Brilliant writing - brilliant performance.

Would you listen to The Old Wives' Tale again? Why?

I was fascinated by the historical detail from the provincial background of the Potteries to the excitement and tension of Paris in the 1870s.

Who was your favorite character and why?

I was intrigued by the character of Sophia - high-spirited and wilful in her youth, but determined and resourceful when circumstances left her destitute. Constance was rather insipid in contrast but provided a perfect foil to her sister. However, all the characters were interesting. Bennett is good at revealing human weakness in a subtle non-judgemental way.

What about David Haig’s performance did you like?

This was a brilliant performance. David Haig managed to give the right tone to every description and every character.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

This was a book to savour in small amounts. Not to be read too quickly or you will miss the flashes of wit, the gentle irony and the exquisite detail in the descriptions.

Any additional comments?

Why is Arnold Bennett so under-rated these days? He combines the wit and irony of Jane Austen with the realism of Dickens' descriptions of the Victorian urban scene.

6 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • w
  • 22-04-16

Moving and Often Very Amusing

Would you consider the audio edition of The Old Wives' Tale to be better than the print version?

I can't comment as I haven't read the print version

What did you like best about this story?

This was a daring subject to write about. On the face of it, it might have been considered a little dull and possibly morbid before reading - a story about two provincial sisters, followed through different stages of their lives, until their deaths, but no, it is so beautifully observed and really is a social commentary, as much as a moving and sometimes beautifully funny account of two, very different lives. It was clever and subtle and I admire the author for his bravery in choosing such a subject. Delivered so very beautifully and with excellent observation.

Which scene did you most enjoy?

I really loved the opening scene, the way that the author took us slowly down, almost it seemed in a 'birds eye view' style, towards the middle part of England, then closer into the Shire and then closer still, into the town and 'The Square' and then finally right into the shop, which was to be that stage setting for us to launch into meeting the two young ladies that we were to follow from then on.

If you made a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

A sedate rollercoaster ride through the lives of two very different, but in their own ways extraordinary, sisters. Moving and Hilarious, all in one beautifully crafted package.

Any additional comments?

When Sofia died, I genuinely felt personally bereaved! I wanted both sisters (and their lovely dogs) to live forever, so I could continue to follow them, through the ups and downs of their lives. The characters are so well defined in this book, that you really feel you know them and even the dogs have their own little personalities and odd ball traits. It is truly charming.

3 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

A beautiful novel badly narrated

The Old Wives Tale is one of the greatest classic novels of the early twentieth century:- far too generally undervalued these days. It is a novel I know well and had read again only recently. Now I fancied listening to it. Unfortunately there is very little of Arnold Bennett on Audible and only this one reading of The Old Wives Tale. It is not a good narration! Sadly David Haig reads the dialogue well enough but his reading of the narration is bizarre. Melodramatic – almost shouting – with great emphasis where there should be no emphasis and constant pauses where there should be no pauses. Very disappointing. The narration does not do justice to a beautiful and important novel.

2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Better Than Bronte

Forthright exquisite prose. A nice contrast to the Bronte romances. Much more grounded and earthy and far less whimsical. Funny too. Really well read. Totally alive to a listener.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Riveting performance.

David Haig is a wonderful actor, his voice clear and attractive and he magically evokes every tender, witty, humorous, philosophical nuance of this great story.

If you enjoy details of places, old rooms, Victorian attitudes, what motivates a character to make decisions which will affect their life and exploring the mystery of human existence, I would recommend this book. The sisters in the story are both ordinary, and extraordinary.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Too long and whilst interesting, all rather dour

This is an extremely long book and not worth the time. Well written but, too long. The actor giving the performance was good as a narrator but, terrible with a Northern accent and so it was rather grating. I would be happy to watch an abbreviated adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s works but, not keen to read another one.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Wonderful Story with Wonderful Narration

I admit for the first few minutes I wasn't sure I was going to like this audiobook but ignore this because it quickly settles into an excellent narration by David Haig. Then I was drawn in further and further to the story of sisters Constance and f Sophia. Bennett's observations on people's lives and the vagaries of their personalities and the way they react were so accurate and timeless it was breathtaking.

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  • Virginia Waldron
  • 13-12-11

Loved Every Word

The narrator is simply perfect. I listened with my eyes closed whilst I was on the treadmill every day. I have lost over 22 pounds doing this with other books as well as this one. An hour just flies. I just don't want to get off. Well, this story is spell-binding. The style of writing is lovely. The setting and characters are charming and the author makes the listener feel part of the whole scene. I have read the book prior to listening to this version and loved it but the superb narration has made me totally fall in love with this author. Fabulous in every way. Just love it all. I couldn't stop listening but I didn't want the story to end. Hooray for this narrator.... thank-you so much for your wonderful work... it has given me such immense pleasure and enjoyment. Who would have thought working out could be so much fun!

10 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Marc
  • 29-03-10

Wonderful

This is a wonderful book, beautifully read. I have always liked Bennett. (Perhaps some one will do The Statue, that he wrote with Eden Phillpotts, another good story.) It is amazing what a good writer can do with such "quiet" material. The lives of two sisters: One quite ordinary and the other forced by circumstances to survive by force of will. My only complaint is the same I have with so many audio books, and that is the horrible music. It sounds as if it were played by a speaker-phone on hold. I hope this penchant in audio books goes away for it is always distracting. The reader here was excellent, but he did pronounce Sophia, Sofia a couple of times which confused me. Still, this was one of the best books I've listened to all year. I doubt that you will forget the charactors and situations in this story for a long time.

7 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Bebe
  • 09-06-10

A charming, funny book

I enjoyed this book more than any I've listened to in a long time. It has some really funny sections. I especially enjoyed the birthday party for the 4-year-old boy. If you have ever had workmen at your home, you'll enjoy that description.
If you like Trollope, give this a listen.

6 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Daniel
  • 19-08-11

Beauty and frailty of human endeavor

Biography of 2 English sisters spanning later half of 19th century. Constance, the good-natured older sister, grew up, married and raised a family all in the bonding accordance of social and familial expectation, while the beautiful Sophia's stubbornly independent streak propelled her to elope from her family, country and tradition into an utterly varied life. Both main characters are brilliantly etched inside and out, divulging both the beauty and frailty of human endeavor.

5 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Marsha
  • 08-10-19

On overlooked bit of history

My first reaction: How did anyone have enough leisure time to write this extremely long and detailed book? It follows the life of two sisters from their early teens through their soon-to-be-separate lifetimes in two different countries as they cope with rapidly changing Western culture into the capitalistic, corporate, Industrial Age. Business, real estate and traditional family expectations undergo enormous changes that ultimately morphed into today's society. More interesting as a peek into everyday life in historical times than merely the people involved, although the diametrically different sisters are interesting in their own right and emblematic of the era. Not a page-turner, but a book that keeps you interested to the end.

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Michael
  • 16-12-18

Excellent...but slow

This book is a very good read following two sisters throughout their lives in the late 1800s.
The characters are deep and realistic and the story is subtle, funny, and touching.
The story does not have much tension or action, it is a story of tiny incremental transformations of real life.
I love long stories covering a lifetime with excellent character development, which this book did well and I am glad I read it. Yet, this did not stick with me. Although pleasant, it was slow and I never really connected with the characters...it was like viewing the characters from above instead of being immersed in the story.

The narration was excellent (but I did not like the musical interludes)

A good read if you like this kind of book, but I don't think it is an essential read.