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Arnold Bennett (Enoch Arnold Bennett) Biography

(1867–1931), (Enoch Arnold Bennett), Woman, The Yellow Book, A Man from the North

British novelist, born in Hanley, Staffordshire, the eldest son of a self-educated and self-made solicitor who had struggled up to professional status from a family of potters and shopkeepers. Bennett was also destined for the law but he continued (uncharacteristically) to fail his legal examinations, rebelled against his dominating father, and escaped to London, where, after working briefly as a solicitor's clerk, he began to earn his living as a journalist and writer. In 1893 he became assistant editor and then editor of the periodical Woman, to which he contributed under various pseudonyms. His first serious short story, ‘A Letter Home’, was published in 1895 in The Yellow Book, and in 1898 appeared his first, somewhat gloomy, realistic novel, A Man from the North, about aspiring writer Richard Larch. He also began to write sensational fiction; The Grand Babylon Hotel (1902) was the first of many works to bear witness to Bennett's love of the fantasy world of luxury hotels (particularly the Savoy) and his penchant for writing about millionaires, chefs, and smart modern women. After his father's death in 1902 he published Anna of the Five Towns and moved to Paris, where in 1907 he married Marguerite Soulie. He taught himself French, greatly admired the French realists, and became a lifelong Francophile: many of his works show an interesting cross-fertilization of French and home-grown realism. The Grim Smile of the Five Towns (short stories, 1907) was followed by one of the best of his lighter works, Buried Alive (1908), about a famous painter who chooses to change places with his dead valet and ‘disappear’; his masterpieces The Old Wives' Tale (1908) and The Clayhanger Trilogy (Clayhanger, 1910; Hilda Lessways, 1911; These Twain, 1916; and a sequel, The Roll Call, 1918), both based largely in the ‘Five Towns’ or Potteries; and The Card (1911), the highly successful account of the warm-hearted opportunist adventurer, Denry Machin. In 1912 Bennett moved back to England, where he settled permanently and continued to produce much fiction of varying quality, including the short stories in The Matador of the Five Towns (1912), and the novels The Regent (1913), which features the Card as a theatrical impresario; The Pretty Lady (1918), about a goldhearted courtesan; Mr Prohack (1922), a fantasy of sudden riches; Riceyman Steps (1923), written after his separation from his wife and meeting with actress Dorothy Cheston, thenceforward his lifelong companion; Lord Raingo (1926), set in political circles, with which he had become familiar through his wartime friendship with Beaverbrook; and Imperial Palace (1930), his last long novel of hotel life. Throughout his career Bennett was passionately interested in the theatre, where he had several successes, notably Milestones (1912), a family drama written in collaboration with E. Knoblock, and The Great Adventure (1913), a dramatization of Buried Alive. He also wrote a great deal of popular journalism, showing a populist gift for conveying information and enthusiasm in such volumes as Literary Taste: How To Form It (1909) and How To Live on 24 Hours a Day (1912). At different periods he wrote regularly on varying topics for the New Age, the Daily News, and the New Statesman, and from 1926 until his death contributed a weekly article on books to the Evening Standard. From 1896 he kept a Journal, consciously modelled on that of the Goncourt brothers, which was published in 19323, edited by Newman Flower; it gives a vivid portrait of his life and times and his rise through discipline and obsessional hard work to the position of one of the most influential and best-paid authors of the age. He died at his flat at Chiltern Court, Baker Street, after contracting typhoid in Paris. His letters, edited by James Hepburn, were published in three volumes (196670), and there is a biography by Margaret Drabble (1974). Bennett's reputation suffered in his later years from attacks by a younger generation of writers, notably Virginia Woolf who used him as an example of the realist-materialist pre-modernist school in, for example, her essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1923). His work never recovered the wide popularity it enjoyed during his lifetime, and although many of his works are still much enjoyed and admired, he has, like his friends and contemporaries H. G. Wells and John Galsworthy, received little academic attention.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais Biography to Michel Bibaud Biography