During a recent illness, I had to spend a few days in bed and quickly became very bored. After an unrewarding browse through Twitter, I remembered how much comfort I'd derived from reading Of Human Bondage the year before and decided that what I needed was a big, Edwardian doorstep of a novel. But what?
On Google searches, the name 'Arnold Bennett' frequently appeared, but each time I dismissed him without a moment's consideration. The very idea! But why was I so prejudiced against a novelist who had once been called "the English Zola"? I couldn't quite remember.
In an excellent New York Times article, Who's Afraid of Arnold Bennett?, Wendy Lesser neatly sums up the problem with Bennett:
"I have an experiment for you to try. The next time you're at a literary
gathering, ask 10 people whether they've ever read Arnold Bennett. Now,
by ''literary gathering'' I do not mean your run-of-the-mill publisher's
cocktail party, your average book award ceremony. For the experiment to
work, you have to choose a group consisting of people who actually read
-- anti-Derridean English professors, say, or poets over the age of 40,
or freelance writers who pack Trollope novels in their vacation
Even in such a narrowly selected group, I predict, no more than one in
ten will have read an Arnold Bennett novel. One or two will honestly
confess they've never heard of him; another two or three will say his
name sounds vaguely familiar. But fully half your sample is likely to
pipe up with the information that though they haven't read Bennett
himself, they have read Virginia Woolf's 1924 essay ''Mr. Bennett and
Mrs. Brown.'' And that essay, they will suggest, made it abundantly
clear that there was no need ever to read Arnold Bennett.
I find it disturbing that Virginia Woolf, the possessor of an intense
but extremely limited form of genius, should have been able, in the
course of just 60 or 70 years, to crowd a great novelist like Arnold
Bennett right off the literary map. It is as if you had planted a
delightfully unusual ground cover in your garden, only to discover some
years later that its rampant spread had killed your favorite oak. (Well,
not oak, exactly. Charles Dickens is an oak. Bennett is more like an
unruly old apple tree: he could use some pruning, but the fruit is
After reading the Clayhanger trilogy, I couldn't agree more. I'd always lumped Arnold Bennett in with contemporaries like Hugh Walpole - by all accounts, an average writer of middlebrow fiction. But although the trilogy itself isn't a masterpiece, the first part certainly comes close.
I hadn't read Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, but Woolf's 24-page essay is available here and it's interesting how she flatters Bennett with faint praise before going for the jugular, using his own assertion about the importance over character over plot to highlight his supposed inadequacies as a novelist.
According to Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett is too preocuupied with extraneous details to ever get to the heart of a character. In Hilda Lessways - the middle and arguably least successful novel of the Clayhanger trilogy - the characters of Hilda and her mother fail to establish themselves because the author is obsessed with bombarding the reader with facts about where they live:
"We cannot hear her mother's voice, or Hilda's voice; we can only hear Mr. Bennett's voice telling us facts about rents and freeholds and copyholds and fines. What is Mr. Bennett about? I have formed my own opinion of what Mr. Bennett is about - he is trying to make us imagine for him; he is trying to hypnotise us into the belief that because he has made a house, there must be a person living there."
This would be more convincing if there was no Clayhanger, but in Hilda Lessways, the heroine is already a firmly-established character. Why has Woolf picked the middle book in a trilogy to prove her point? I can't help feeling that the literary feud between Woolf and Bennett was mainly a consequence of their different social backgrounds.
For Virginia Woolf, "facts about rents and freeholds" may have been superfluous, but Arnold Bennett knew that to people on a low income, they were anything but. Born in a lower class family, Bennett endured a brief and unhappy spell as a rent collector in Stoke on Trent and saw how people were thwarted by circumstances, slaves to the whims of the local economy.
Perhaps Woolf viewed the working class as a separate species - noble (and ignoble) savages - rather than just people whose characters had only been allowed to grow in a very small pot, limited by lack of money and opportunity. To describe their lives without mentioning the details of their homes, the clothes they wore and the rents they paid would be absurd.
It is tempting to imagine a northern, working class version of Mrs. Dalloway (perhaps Mrs. Dalloby), but I don't think there would be much time in the day for any stream of consciousness.
Of course, Woolf had her own demons to contend with, but they were not financial. Her success as a writer and, later, a feminist icon, was partly achieved because of the freedoms Woolf's monied background provided. While Woolf sat in her 'room of own's one', contemplating the finer points of Elizabethan drama or the Brontes, Nellie Bloxall was busy cooking, cleaning, making the beds and emptying the chamber pots.
Arnold Bennett began his literary career began under very different circumstances and although he eventually became financially secure, he never lost the habit of one who has to write for a living, remaining an artisan in the literary world.
If Clayhanger was all about lists and facts, it would be a very dull book indeed, but the reality is a novel that succeeds on two fronts, creating a broad canvas that vividly evokes the Stoke-on-Trent of the late Victorian age, with a cast of characters who are credible and sympathetic. It took me a little while to become fully engaged with the narrative, but I found the final three quarters of the novel utterly compelling.
Why did Bennett go out of fashion? Did the Woolfs and Leavis's of this world really exert such a strong influence on the reading public? Perhaps Arnold Bennett simply committed the unpardonable sin of being too prolific, publishing mediocre novels as well as good. I also wonder if big, chunky, traditional novels, by working class northerners with bad teeth, are less attractive than slim, experimental, impressionistic ones, by frail-looking aesthetes.
John Carey, in his highly entertaining book The Intellectuals and the Masses, hails Bennett as a hero and suggests that Woolf and company deliberately cultivated a style that would be inaccessible to the 'wrong' sort of people:
"The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy. But they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult to understand."
Carey also believes that Arnold Bennett's literary fate was sealed because:
"His writings represent a systematic dismemberment of the intellectuals' case against the masses."
Clayhanger was a revelation and I look forward to read more Bennett. According to Wendy Lesser, The Old Wives' Tale is his masterpiece, but I've also read good reviews of Riceyman Steps and Anna of the Five Towns.
I'll leave the last word to Mr. Bennett himself:
"A cause can be inconvenient, but it's magnificent. It's like champagne or high heels, and one must be prepared to suffer for it."