In the preface to The Old Wives' Tale (1908), Arnold Bennett mentions his debt to two novels in particular: Guy de Maupassant's Une Vie and Mrs. W. K. [Lucy] Clifford's Aunt Anne. And in his 1983 preface to the Penguin edition of The Old Wives' Tale, John Wain mentions Arnold Bennett's debt to Une Vie, along with French realism and naturalism more generally. Poor Mrs. Clifford fails to make even a token appearance. In one sense, of course, Wain's emphasis is the proper one; as Wain notes, Bennett's understanding of literary realism derives very much from the "documentary tradition" (18) variously practiced by French authors from Balzac to Zola. Nevertheless, it's worth noting (and I'm sure that some critic has already noted) that Bennett's protagonists, the Baines sisters, owe their surname to Aunt Anne Baines; it's not as though Bennett was trying to cover up the connection. A quick skim of Aunt Anne suggests that Mrs. Clifford wrote this novel under the aegis of Mrs. Henry Wood and Mary Elizabeth Braddon: there's a bigamy plot (standard issue in Victorian sensation fiction), an adulterous woman, a rather unpleasant baronet, and some heavyhanded moralizing. Still, for all that Mrs. Clifford produced a fairly conventional popular novel, her relatively frank treatment of sexual desire and revulsion is not much less "advanced" than Bennett's, while Bennett's spendthrift Gerald Scales is a wishy-washy version of Clifford's melodramatically villainous (and cash-strapped) Arthur Wimple.
Obviously, Bennett's somewhat beleaguered position on the novelist's Parnassus stands to benefit from the French connection; Mrs. Clifford provides no such cachet. But Mrs. Clifford's shadowy presence in The Old Wives' Tale's background makes me think about Bennett's interest in Victorian popular genres. The Old Wives' Tale is a historical novel, but a historical novel that frequently represents history as a nuisance or a half-registered event hovering just outside the protagonist's sphere of consciousness--in terms of the price of food during the Siege of Paris, for example. The novel's use of ironic doubling (Sophia's and Constance's mirrored lives), coincidences, and apparently providential outcomes would hardly be out of place in Dickens or even popular religious fiction, but--somewhat after the manner of Zola--these events are less God's plot than they are culture's or biology's. In free indirect discourse, Constance Baines may assure herself that "Sophia had sinned. It was therefore inevitable that she should suffer" (IV.4), but Sophia's romantic sin and Constance's bourgeois respectability inevitably lead them to the same end. And while Bennett tips his hat to Mrs. Clifford in the occasional appearance of sensational elements--murder, insanity, two executions, Gerald Scales' treatment of Sophia--he makes their effects unpredictable or simply deflates them altogether. In that sense, The Old Wives' Tale is a very post-Victorian novel.