The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett
Published1908 Book 2 Ch 8:The Proudest Mother events set in 1893
[Constance Povey, who was brought up in a drapers’ shop, is in awe of her son Cyril]
...She laboriously interested herself, so far as he would allow, in his artistic studies and productions. A back attic on the second floor was now transformed into a studio—a naked apartment which smelt of oil and of damp clay. Often there were traces of clay on the stairs. For working in clay he demanded of his mother a smock, and she made a smock, on the model of a genuine smock which she obtained from a country-woman who sold eggs and butter in the Covered Market. Into the shoulders of the smock she put a week's fancy-stitching, taking the pattern from an old book of embroidery… When the smock was finished he examined it intently; then exclaimed with an air of surprise: "By Jove! That's beautiful! Where did you get this pattern?" He continued to stare at it, smiling in pleasure. He turned over the tattered leaves of the embroidery-book with the same naive, charmed astonishment, and carried the book away to the studio. "I must show that to Swynnerton," he said.... Later, he discovered her cutting out another smock. "What's that for?" he inquired. "Well," she said, "you can't manage with one smock. What shall you do when that one has to go to the wash?" "Wash!" he repeated vaguely. "There's no need for it to go to the wash." "Cyril," she replied, "don't try my patience! I was thinking of making you half-a-dozen." He whistled. "With all that stitching?" he questioned, amazed at the undertaking. "Why not?" she said. In her young days, no seamstress ever made fewer than half-a-dozen of anything, and it was usually a dozen; it was sometimes half-a-dozen dozen.
The Old Wives'Tale has featured on the blog here, and is full of descriptions of clothes. Cyril is a rather unsatisfactory son, with his artistic ways, and he certainly isn’t going to take over the drapers’ shop. But here he shows that he is not completely lost to simplicity and real life.
As a baby his parents argued over whether to go into him when he cried in the night – a very real scene that could have come from any recent book featuring babies. And he has been spoilt since childhood – his parents ‘both really did believe, at that moment, that Cyril was, in some subtle way which they felt but could not define, superior to all other infants.’ There is another very funny scene describing one of his young birthday parties, with the adults standing behind the children’s chairs at the dining-table, like so many extra footmen.
If smocks are to feature, immutable laws mean that this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon by Bill Watterson, must be referenced: ‘Don’t mock my smock or I’ll clean your clock.’ Hobbes (that’s the tiger) is like Cyril and needs a smock before he can do sculpture, but eventually reveals that he just likes saying the word ‘smock’. Can’t argue with that.
The picture, from the Archives of American Art, is of the sculptor Fernando Miranda, and is on Flickr.