The Old Wives' Tale HTML version

Preface To This Edition
In the autumn of 1903 I used to dine frequently in a restaurant in the Rue de
Clichy, Paris. Here were, among others, two waitresses that attracted my
attention. One was a beautiful, pale young girl, to whom I never spoke, for she
was employed far away from the table which I affected. The other, a stout,
middle-aged managing Breton woman, had sole command over my table and
me, and gradually she began to assume such a maternal tone towards me that I
saw I should be compelled to leave that restaurant. If I was absent for a couple of
nights running she would reproach me sharply: "What! you are unfaithful to me?"
Once, when I complained about some French beans, she informed me roundly
that French beans were a subject which I did not understand. I then decided to
be eternally unfaithful to her, and I abandoned the restaurant. A few nights before
the final parting 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. She was burdened with a lot of small parcels, which she kept
dropping. She chose one seat; and then, not liking it, chose another; and then
another. In a few moments she had the whole restaurant laughing at her. That
my middle-aged Breton should laugh was indifferent to me, but I was pained to
see a coarse grimace of giggling on the pale face of the beautiful young waitress
to whom I had never spoken.
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."
Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque--far from it!--but there is an extreme
pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl
with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And
the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made
up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only
intensifies the pathos.
It was at this instant that I was visited by the idea of writing the book which
ultimately became "The Old Wives' Tale." Of course I felt that the woman who
caused the ignoble mirth in the restaurant would not serve me as a type of
heroine. For she was much too old and obviously unsympathetic. It is an
absolute rule that the principal character of a novel must not be unsympathetic,
and the whole modern tendency of realistic fiction is against oddness in a
prominent figure. I knew that I must choose the sort of woman who would pass
unnoticed in a crowd.
I put the idea aside for a long time, but it was never very distant from me. For
several reasons it made a special appeal to me. I had always been a convinced
admirer of Mrs. W. K. Clifford's most precious novel, "Aunt Anne," but I wanted to
see in the story of an old woman many things that Mrs. W. K. Clifford had omitted
from "Aunt Anne." Moreover, I had always revolted against the absurd