Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Mrs Woolf and Mr Bennett

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 luggage.

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 delicious." 

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."


Sarah said...

Thank you for drawing my attention to Mr Bennett. His books sound worth reading. I'll look him up on the Guggenheim project for my Kindle. :)

Steerforth said...

They're all on there, plus free Kindle versions on Amazon.

moo said...

As a resident of Stoke-on-Trent, I have, of course, heard of Bennett, but until now I've only read some short stories and a daft but fun book called The Grand Babylon Hotel. It's high time I expanded my knowledge. Thanks for the nudge.

Tim F said...

Bennett also said: "Good taste is better than bad taste but bad taste is better than no taste." Which I rather like.

Steerforth said...

Moo - Is there much left of the old potteries in Stoke? I quite fancy a trip to see what Bennett was writing about.

Tim - I'll second that. Also, bad taste can sometimes be far more enjoyable than good taste, as any Eurovision fan will agree.

Flavia said...

I found The Old Wives' Tale quite tedious, but Riceyman Steps is must-read for a bookseller.

There's also an old Penguin (979) selection from his journals that's entertaining to dip into.

Flavia said...

Did my comment get through? Your captchas are REALLY annoying -- shan't bother again.

Lucille said...

I have never read any of his books but I have eaten his omelette.

Steerforth said...

Flavia - Yes, I have the old Penguin, which I found at work.

Re: the captchas, I agree, they're extremely annoying, but the amount of spam I was getting was driving me to despair - up to 100 spam comments a day sometimes. Deleting them sometimes involved accidentally wiping genuine comments.

I put up with the links to websites selling Louis Vuitton handbags and viagra, but the sex aids were the final straw. Enough was enough.

I hope you haven't been completely put off making further comments.

Lucille - If it's like the books, it was big, a bit lumpy, but full of flavour.

Anonymous said...

Before you lose interest in Arnold Bennett, please read Riceyman Steps and, don't forsake Somerset Maugham until you have read The Painted Veil. Treats in store.

Brett said...

I tried "Clayhanger" five years ago as a text file from Project Gutenberg on my PC. I too was looking for something like "Of Human Bondage". Having enjoyed Maugham, I thought there must be other worthwhile examples of old-fashioned storytelling, "Edwardian" if you will, or "middle-brow", or non-Modernist, (anti-Derridean?).

I don't think it was any fault of the book that I left it aside. In those days I downloaded a lot of text-file e-books, and I don't think I ever managed to read an entire one on my PC. It just was not a comfortable way to read.

I am glad that you reminded me about Bennett. I will have to try "Clayhanger" again as an EPUB on my Sony Reader.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

'just people whose characters had only been allowed to grow in a very small pot, limited by lack of money and opportunity'

Brilliant line Steerforth. Must give Mr Bennett a chance myself.

Hope you are feeling better now. Lx

Steerforth said...

Anon - Riceyman Steps is high on the list. The Painted Veil is waiting for a lull in my doorstop phase (I'm halfway through Little Dorrit at the moment).

Brett - I'm not surprised you gave up on Clayhanger if you were reading it on a PC. I struggle to read anything on a screen unless it's a Kindle that isn't backlit. If you liked Of Human Bondage I'm sure you'll enjoy the Bennett.

One of many things that I forgot to say in the post, which I wrote in a bit of a hurry, was that I really admired the way Bennett avoided melodrama and cliche. There were many scenes where lesser novelists might have introduced a chance meeting or tragic accident to spice things up. Bennett didn't resort to any cheap tricks.

Laura - I'm feeling much better, thanks. I hope to see you at the next Lewes Poetry evening - I think I missed the last one.

Canadian Chickadee said...

It's interesting to see whose fame lasts and whose fame fades, isn't it? I remember having a literature professor who said perhaps the greatest English poet was Alexander Pope, but no one took him as seriously as they should because his writing was too clear and left nothing ambiguous to argue about.

I'll have to look into some of Bennett's books too, as I don't recall ever reading any, though Virginia W was assigned of course.

Hope you have a great weekend. xoxo

Nicholas said...

And dear old A.B. is FUNNY. 'The Card' and then the one where Denry Machin reappears, 'The Regent'.
A.B. could also be very 'advanced' too as in 'The Pretty Lady'. To avoid spoilers I think you should read it fresh before reading this blog essay about it:

earnoldbennett said...

A very enjoyable and thoughtful article. I personally think that "Clayhanger" is a great book, and "These Twain" isn't far behind, but it's all a matter of how a book speaks to you personally. As regards Virginia Woolf, you may like to read what AB wrote about her in his journal - http://earnoldbennett.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=Woolf

Annabel said...

I inherited a couple of Bennett Penguins from my late mum, including Anna of the 5 towns and Grand Babylon Hotel. I shall keep them for a rainy day...

Steerforth said...

Carol - It's a pity that Bennett is preceived as a 'meat and two veg' sort of writer, as his novels are full of subtle insights into the human condition. His novels may be approachable, but they aren't superficial.

Nicholas - Yes, funny and very scathing at times. His portrayal of A Wesleyan preacher was very amusing. I'll make sure I read The Pretty Lady.

Mr Bennett - I agree that Clayhanger is a great book. The portrayal of the father-son relationship was particularly impressive, but I also enjoyed the evocation of a lost, but strangely familiar world.

Hilda Lessways was a disappointment. I was glad to see some light shed on the Hilda's mysterious past, but frustrated by having to go over old ground.

These Twain could have been a very different book in the hands of an inferior writer. I admired the way Bennett depicted a marriage without resorting to sentimentality ot melodrama. I wasn't entirely convinced by the character of Tertius Ingpen, whose comments on marriage made him feel like a bit of a Greek chorus at times.

But what a trilogy! In my post, I may have made it sound like a cosy, escapist read. But that would being doing Mr Bennett a huge disservice.

I think he's in the same class as Zola.

Annabel - The consensus seems to be that the Grand Babylon Hotel isn't one of Bennett's best, so I'd try Anna of the Five Towns first.

Steerforth said...

I've just read and thoroughly enjoyed the Arnold Bennett journal entry about Virginia Woolf - I'd strongly recommend following the link (above) to anyone who's remotely interested in either writer.

Glitter said...

The Card is hilarious and reminds me of P G Wodehouse.

Anna said...

Steerforth, you always speak such sense, so, obediently I've Kindled the three Clayhanger books and have just got to Edwin leaving school... It's fruitcake, not spongecake and I'm enjoying it thoroughly... I read Anna of the Five Towns years ago and really liked that, so look forward to hours of free reading! Many thanks AnnaC

Steerforth said...

Glitter - I have very distant (but fond) memories of the film adaptation with Alec Guinness, so I look forward to reading it.

Anna - I'm so glad! I really hope you enjoy it.

Lucille said...

It is exactly that.

Anonymous said...

I'm taking a slightly off-kilter approach to Bennett, using his reading lists in Literary Taste: How to Form It to see if indeed I can do just that. However, I've read The Old Wives' Tale and The Card and I'm now looking forward to reading Rinceyman Steps and Anna of the Five Towns. I find him a joy to read, full of insight and great compassion for his characters, without (that often) slipping into sentimentality. As far as I know, he harboured no grudge against Virginia Woolf and in his reviews (well worth hunting down) reviewed her work favourably.

Anna said...

I left a comment earlier about Kindling the Clayhanger books, Steerforth...
I've now read and really enjoyed Clayhanger - especially the relationship between Edwin and his father.. but am now halfway through Hilda Lessways and must admit to thoroughly disliking the eponymous heroine.Still, carry on and am looking forward to the third book. Thanks so much for re-introducing Arnold Bennett...

michael said...

That Carey book is irritating though...

Steerforth said...

Lucille - Thanks for the link. The omlette looks rather tasty - I'm going to have to try it.

LiteraryTaste - That's an interesting approach to reading. You could a lot worse than try Bennett's recommendations. As for Woolf, he appears to have rated her as a writer and was generous in his comments. It's a pity that she was so dismissive of Bennett's insight into the human condition - his description of Edwin's attitude towards his father was masterly.

Anna - I'm so glad you you've read and enjoyed Clayhanger. The middle book is a bit of a struggle after the highs of the first, but the third book makes it worth the effort. Hilda is a bit annoying, I agree. I don't know why Edwin puts up with her.

Michael - I enjoyed the Carey book, although he took his thesis to absurd extremes, suggesting that Woolf and co were Nietzschean proto-fascists. Perhaps a future version of Carey will praise Jeffrey Archer whilst damning the likes of Julian Barnes as elitists.

Tony Williams said...

'although the trilogy itself isn't a masterpiece, the first part certainly comes close' - Amen to that – Clayhanger is a phenomenal novel. And I bloody love The Old Wives' Tale too!

Mrs M said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this reminder of Bennett and your analysis of Woolf's class-ridden prejudice... I have not read any of his novels despite being from Stoke-on-Trent originally. As a kid I heard all about him, along with Reginald Mitchell (of Spitfire fame) Captain Smith (of the Titanic) and Sir Philip Brocklehurst (polar explorer). Stoke is far from glamorous but there are some wonderful museums (http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/towns/stoke.shtml) and the surrounding countryside of the Peak district, Dove Dale and Manifold Valley is glorious. I'd also recommend Leek where I went to school. Reputedly has more antique shops and pubs per head than any other town in Britain...

harriet said...

I'm coming to this rather late as I've just found your blog. I too loved Clayhanger, and gave up on Hilda Lessways though I might start again one day. Have read The Old Wives Tale twice, and highly recommend it. Thanks. I'll be back.

Steerforth said...

Harriet - I can understand why you gave up, but it's worth persisting to get to the third book. The trilogy starts and ends well, which is the main thing.

Mrs M - I missed your comment when it first appeared, so I just wanted to say thanks for the links. I hope that I'll get a chance to visit the area one day.