Last night, when I went into the Duval for dinner, a middle-aged woman, inordinately stout and with pendant cheeks, had taken the seat opposite to my prescriptive seat. I hesitated, as there were plenty of empty places, but my waitress requested me to take my usual chair. I did so, and immediately thought, ‘With that thing opposite to me my dinner will be spoilt!’ But the woman was evidently also cross at my filling up her table, and she went away, picking up all her belongings, to another part of the restaurant breathing hard. Then she abandoned her second choice for a third one. My waitress was scornful and angry at this desertion, but laughing also. Soon all the waitresses were privately laughing at the goings on of the fat woman, who was being served by the most beautiful waitress I have ever seen at any Duval. The fat woman was clearly a crochet, a maniaque, a woman who lived much alone. Her cloak (she displayed on taking it off a simply awful light puce flannel dress) and her parcels were continually the object of her attention and she was always arguing with the waitress. And the whole restaurant secretly made a butt of her. She was repulsive; no one could like her or sympathise with her. But I thought – she has been young and slim once. And I immediately thought of a long 10 or 15 thousand words short story, The History of Two Old Women. I have this woman a sister fat as herself. And the first chapter would be in the restaurant (both sisters) something like tonight – and written rather cruelly. Then I would go back to the infancy of these two, and sketch it all. One should have lived ordinarily, married prosaically, and become a widow. The other should have become a whore and all that; ‘guilty splendour’. Both are overtaken by fat. And they live together in old age, not too rich, a nuisance to themselves and to others. Neither has any imagination. For ‘tone’ I thought of Ivan Ilyich [by Tolstoy], and for technical arrangement I thought of that and also Histoire d’une Fille de Ferne. The two lives would have to intertwine. I saw the whole work quite clearly, and hope to do it.
Journals of Arnold Bennett - Wednesday, November 18th 1903
[Bennett’s first idea became the scheme of his great novel The Old Wives’ Tale, which published in 1908 became an instant sensational best-seller in England and America.]