Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Arnold Bennett (1867–1931)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Allan Nevins (1890–1971)
ARNOLD BENNETT will be remembered as the novelist of the Five Towns—as chronicler of the life and exponent of the ideals of a hard-headed, pushing, materialistic, and spiritually deficient people during the last half of the long Victorian era. He has covered a large canvas, and covered it industriously, on the whole painstakingly, and with great insight into the outward aspect of the middle-class existence of these manufacturing communities; but with vigor rather than consummate artistry or subtlety of interpretation. We wonder sometimes why the novel of business has made so little headway in this age of business. Bennett, through his training and his talent for what is loosely called “realism,” is the greatest writer in this field, and by working hard and with general sincerity he has scored many commercial and several artistic successes. He has but an ill-defined point of view: he is a writer who sees the dramatic facets of human experience in the mass, whose trained observation and immense memory enable him to render a wealth of detail in human action and surroundings with never a slip, and who is content to set down what contributes to the progress of his narrative and characterization with only the slightest additions of a personal kind. This impersonal mode of writing, and his share in the worldly shrewdness of the Five Towns, have perhaps contributed to his recurrent forgetfulness of the highest standards of art and the consequent unevenness of his work. If an artist would not let himself knowingly falter, Bennett is sometimes an artist and sometimes a clever craftsman.  1
  He was reared in circumstances that steeped him in the atmosphere of the society he was to describe. Born May 27th, 1867, near Hanley, which in turn is not far from Birmingham, he had the five towns of the great Staffordshire potteries district—Hanley, Tunstall, Burslem, Stoke-upon-Trent, and Longton—under close observation. His father was a solicitor, and he was educated to follow the same calling. He was first trained at Newcastle-under-Lyme, at the Endowed Middle School, the very one mentioned in ‘Clayhanger.’ He matriculated at London University at about eighteen, gave four years to the study of law in his father’s office, and in 1889 went from the Five Towns to London, “with no definite ambition and no immediate object save to escape from the intellectual and artistic environment which had long been excessively irksome to me.” He earned a scanty living as shorthand clerk, but was soon promoted to the preparation of bills of costs for taxation, with a salary of two hundred pounds a year. From this niche he was lifted by his ambition and the remark of an elder leaving the office: “You’ve no business being here. You ought to be doing something else. If I find you here when I visit town next, I shall look upon you as a d—d fool.”  2
  In ‘The Truth about an Author’ Bennett has given a truthful and hence mildly shocking account of the early stages of his career—to 1900, in short; shocking because his career has been so shrewdly practical, so full of the Five Towns desire to get on by industry and proficiency, so apparently empty of the ideals with which we associate conscious art. It is undoubtedly true that all authorship has many of the elements Bennett here describes so openly, and undoubtedly true that Bennett has said nothing of secret aims that were probably very real to him. He tells how in the Five Towns he contributed a smart column to a local paper, and of the thrill that came over him when he learned that he was expected to continue writing while his grandfather was dying. In London he collected books, assumed the air of an authority about them, read voraciously, making Turgenev, the brothers Goncourt, and de Maupassant his gods, and, above all, served an apprenticeship as free lance. He won a prize for articles in a “popular paper,” had a story accepted by The Yellow Book, and in general labored in the journalism which he describes as sending out an article and receiving it back the next day but one. About the year 1893 these articles came back more rarely, while he became sub-editor—later editor—of the magazine Woman. His fluency growing, he contributed regularly to the Academy, became a dramatic critic, reviewed one or more books a day with just as much care as he felt his remuneration justified, and wrote plays “because I wanted money in heaps and I wanted advertisement for my books.” He wrote his first novel while murmuring, in the words of Edmund Kean, “I’m doing the trick,” and finished it while “I did not yet dare to call myself an artist; I lacked the courage to believe that I had the sacred fire.” Under the title of ‘The Man from the North’ it was published in 1898, and ushered in years of literary activity prolific enough to recall Trollope. In 1899, Bennett tells us, he wrote about 230 articles and short stories, a book of plays, all of ‘Anna of the Five Towns,’ the greater part of ‘Love and Life,’ and part of ‘The Gates of Wrath.’ Nearly every year since, whether he has been in England or France, for he has spent much time at Fontainebleau, has been as fertile.  3
  Inevitably in all this there has been much trash, and the kindly among Bennett’s analysts will pass by the greater part of his output—he himself would in no way object to the noun—in silence. Bennett, like Hardy, has himself classified his writings: Novels, Fantasias, Short Stories, Belles Lettres, Dramas, and In Collaboration. The future will take account of only the novels and short stories, and of only a portion of these. In particular, ‘The Old Wives’ Tale,’ the trilogy comprised in ‘Clayhanger,’ ‘Hilda Lessways,’ and ‘These Twain,’ the three volumes of short stories, ‘Tales of the Five Towns,’ ‘The Grim Smile of the Five Towns,’ and ‘The Matador of the Five Towns,’ with perhaps the novel ‘Anna of the Five Towns,’ contain the cream of his work. The remainder in fiction is of value to the critic of Bennett chiefly as exhibiting more clearly than this best part, his essential faults and limitations set in sharp contrast to his virtues and powers—for very little of his fiction is wanting in considerable merit in some one particular. The work of Bennett in the plays and belles lettres, by which is meant criticism, travel, and the handbooks on some of the personal problems of life, was probably regarded as ephemeral while it was being done.  4
  ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ is Bennett’s most finished, profound, and deeply truthful work; his preoccupation with the objective is apparently as great as elsewhere, but it has not prevented him from putting a real soul into his narrative. In brief, it is an exhibition of the progress of two girls of Bursley (Burslem), born in the late forties, from the age of fifteen to their deaths; being an attempt to parallel and better Maupassant’s ‘Une Vie.’ Sophia Baines, full of vitality and the spirit of adventure, runs away to London and France with a man whose character is indicated by the fact that he had at first the idea of seducing and abandoning her. Realizing that her life is ruined, she tries to recoup by making a competence out of an English pension in Paris, with the hope of returning home creditably. Meanwhile her sister Constance, a woman of sweetness but little force of character, has married a respectable Five Towns tradesman, has seen him die of overexertion, has trained a son who has some talent but no great filial affection, and has fallen into a very narrow rut indeed. In old age the two are reunited. Sophia tries her best to throw Constance out of some of her ruts, as by carrying her away from her old house to a hotel, and the two live unhappily in the mutual exhibition of the crotchets and prejudices they have acquired till, Sophia first and Constance soon after, they die. The keynote of the novel is disillusionment, the chief impression the reader carries away is of the remorselessness of time and decay; while there runs through it the same irony that furnishes the theme of the play ‘Milestones,’ the irony of the fact that all youths exhibit an impatience of adult conventions and discipline, and in their own old age come to show the same impatience of the heat and passion of youth. It is not a very pleasant book anywhere, in some passages it is possible to trace a faint morbidity, and from the point of view of mere craftsmanship, its 200,000 words might well be reduced. But it is unexcelled among Bennett’s works in the truthfulness of its characterization, the interest excited by the steady march of the story through the years, the vigor of the style, the breadth of the palette, and the skill with which in the chief personages the manners, mind, and traditions of a whole society are exhibited. Impersonal the recital is, but it excites pity, and, when the author wishes, other emotions, as only rare books do; while its constructive merit, which lies in the selection of the illuminating passages in the lives of the two old wives, is remarkable.  5
  In the ‘Clayhanger’ trilogy the Antæus-like strength that Bennett gains from the soil of his Five Towns is again noteworthy. The first two books of the three are not initial and sequential, but complementary. In ‘Clayhanger’ we are invited to follow the career of the son of a prosperous Bursley printer, a rather tame youth but capable of gripping the reader’s attention, from the period when his secondary schooling begins to his marriage with Hilda Lessways, also of the Five Towns. The genesis of his character; his relations with a father who has seen enough of the hard side of life to make him a little jealous of his son’s advantages; his meeting and infatuation with Hilda; his abandonment by her just when his love for her seems approaching its triumph; his assumption of the printing business, upon his father’s breakdown; his reunion with Hilda—all this makes a narrative of strength, variety, and interest. The story is again told dispassionately and impersonally, and though from the general point of view of Clayhanger, never by him. There are moments of real poignancy in the narrative, as when the elder Clayhanger finds himself, through softening of the brain, unable to cut up his food, and watches it done for him as the tears roll down his face; there are moments of high dramatic value, as when Clayhanger hears the thunderbolt news of Hilda’s marriage to Cannon; but the greatest merit of the book, as of ‘The Old Wives’ Tale,’ lies in the convincing representation of phases that extend over years, as the slow absorption of Clayhanger by the printing business. A hardly secondary merit is the faithful yet natural rendering, as a background, of the body, mind, and heart of the Five Towns. The democracy, the enterprise, the common sense, the harshness of the Five Towns are established by scores of petty incidents and thousands of details. Isolated, provincial, aloof in all but an industrial way from the ringing grooves of change, they offer some qualities of the Victorian atmosphere in perfection. They cling to old manners, old habits, old religions, old political views, and the old strictness of family life, with curious tenacity. With their local pride and their wealth of personal idiosyncrasy they contradict all that we usually say of the monotony of industrial life. The careful painting-in of all this is one of the best aspect’s of the trilogy, and best of all in the first book.  6
  ‘Hilda Lessways’ covers the same ground as ‘Clayhanger’ so far as it goes, but does not go so far by some years. With characteristic boldness, Bennett has recorded many of the incidents of the earlier book, and in many cases has exactly reproduced the dialogue—as in the porch-meeting of Hilda and Clayhanger in the rain. Hilda is described more sympathetically, and her point of view given more intimately than was Clayhanger’s. It is fully explained how she came to desert her lover, or rather to renounce him, after their first hours together. Her strength of character under the trials she endured with the bigamous Cannon is brought forth; and in all, one who had seemed in ‘Clayhanger’ eccentric, uneven, and a little harsh appears in a much warmer and more amiable light, though none the less the perplexing and capricious character she was before. In ‘These Twain’ the reactions upon each other of this strangely unlike yet well-suited pair are described in the most difficult psychological study Bennett has yet undertaken, and with the verisimilitude of which, at his best, he is master. Clayhanger, now thirty-six, ensconces himself and his wife in a comfortable Bursley suburb, and settles down to the steady life of an estimable, prosperous citizen. He has his own convictions about everything, and for the most part they are open, manly, honest, and simple; Hilda has hers, and they are wayward, unfair, and exasperatingly cool. The marriage is a success because though Clayhanger is under no illusion as to his wife’s faults, and resents her perversity and occasional unscrupulous duplicity, she remains to him a mysterious, enchanting, and delightful person, with whom he is permanently in love. In short, she “manages” him in spite of himself and his superior virtues. As in ‘The Old Wives’ Tale,’ the point of view is a double one, but we see a great deal more of Clayhanger than of his wife, and it is perhaps for this reason that he appears in so much more favorable a light. The book affords Bennett much the same opportunity in character contrast as ‘The Old Wives’ Tale,’ with room for the analysis of the characteristically masculine and characteristically feminine.  7
  In each of the trilogy Bennett achieves his main ends by the device of piling up detail until it becomes impressive and overwhelming, after a method perhaps learned from the Russians. The construction is more artful than most readers will appreciate, for to make detail interesting and pertinent and keep it from clogging action is no easy task; while Bennett is expert in the use of episode to bring to expression emotions that have been long smouldering. The story in ‘Hilda Lessways’ ends where it should, for it was wise to leave Hilda’s bleak years as boarding-house inmate to the imagination. In ‘These Twain’ the stuff of the narrative is simply the bickerings of husband and wife, the adjustment of Hilda to all the members of the Clayhanger family, the management of the servants, and the relations of the two to Five Towns society, from Peartree the Methodist minister to Breeze the bank manager; but it is skillfully combined. The humor of the book appears again in the social observation of the Five Towns, and although too few of the characters are likable, one, Auntie Hamps, “a classic example of widespread messy idolatrous eternal domesticity,” is an admirable incarnation of all the faults and solid excellences of the Victorian age, while the others are lifelike portraits. The three volumes thus give us a satisfying picture of Five Towns life over several decades. Their chief deficiency is the deficiency of Bennett’s work as a whole: its want of genuine feeling and of philosophical insight into human motives.  8
  Of the short stories we can only note that they are uneven, that they lack compression but otherwise have the genuine short story construction, and that they show that Bennett’s style is not highly adapted to the form, in that he has little sense for the mot juste et court. ‘Anna of the Five Towns’ has distinction but is structurally imperfect; ‘Buried Alive’ contains more of satire than any other of Bennett’s books; and ‘Denry the Audacious’ has won popularity by its vivacity, high spirits, and humor, but exhibits Bennett’s blindness to certain moral defects of the hero in a distressing way. ‘Milestones,’ the most noteworthy of the plays, done in collaboration, attempts with some success to show the immutable characteristics of youth and age from generation to generation. Of the belles lettres, the travel sketches are impressionistic and wordy, and the little books on such problems as ‘How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day’ show Bennett’s desire to be schoolmaster to the masses and his unconquerable common sense, but have no high intellectual or spiritual message.  9

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