2 minute read

Bennett, Arnold

(British, 1867–1931)

Born in the Potteries, son of a self-educated solicitor, Bennett began by working for his father, then escaped to a London firm. In London he began to write fiction, and when he was 35 he moved to Paris to write full-time. In his lifetime he wrote forty-two fiction books, plus plays, journalism, literary criticism, and a journal. By the time he died Bennett was one of the most popular and respected writers in London.

His three best-known novels are all set in the Potteries, and create a vivid picture of the Five Towns with their ‘architecture of ovens and chimneys’ and ‘atmosphere as black as mud’; and of the cramped, often appalling lives of their denizens. Bennett was brought up a Wesleyan Methodist, and the effects of religion (good and bad) are an important theme in his work. He writes with loving detail; he will explain each step of an industrial process; he will delve into a boy's self-conscious silence at dinner; he will explain what the results of investments at certain percentages will be. Through this accumulation of detail he builds an intensely real world. Bennett is good on the degradations of poverty, which he often portrays with Dickensian humour—how dare the poor have the temerity to expect anything other than the worst! He is also exceptionally good on women, making them wholly convincing as central characters, moving easily into their thoughts and feelings.

Begin with Anna of the Five Towns (1902) the story of a young woman who keeps house for her tyrannical miser father. When Anna reaches 21 her father gives her deeds worth £50,000 that he has held in trust for her, but makes it impossible for her to obtain so much as £5 to spend. An industrialist falls in love with Anna, and escape from her father becomes possible; but in the mean time her father has forced her to tighten the screws on one of her tenants, Titus Price, who runs a business in a decrepit printshop. As Anna's personal fortunes rise, Price's plunge downwards—to a terrible end which will turn Anna's happiness to ashes in her mouth.

The domineering father surfaces again in the partly autobiographical Clayhanger (1910). Young Edwin Clayhanger longs to become an architect, but cannot escape the doom of joining his father (a self-made man) in the family business. Bennett's portrayal of the ways a father can subjugate an intelligent child is marvellous, in both Anna and Clayhanger. And the psychological analysis of a miser is taken to even greater heights in the late novel, Riceyman Steps (1923). The Old Wives' Tale (1908) is a big, utterly absorbing novel about two sisters raised in the Potteries, one of whom escapes to a different life in Paris. The whole span of their lives is covered, the effects of the passage of time pitilessly explored. This is simply one of the best novels in the English language.

Margaret Drabble has written an excellent biography, Arnold Bennett (1974).

Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, D. H. Lawrence  JR

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (A-Bo)