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  (Enoch) Arnold Bennett (1867–1931), by Howard Coster, 1929 (Enoch) Arnold Bennett (1867–1931), by Howard Coster, 1929
Bennett, (Enoch) Arnold (1867–1931), writer, was born at Hope Street, Burslem, Staffordshire, on 27 May 1867.

Family, education, and early life

Arnold Bennett was the eldest child in a family of three sons and three daughters—three other children died in infancy—of Enoch Bennett (1843–1902) and Sarah Ann (1840–1914), eldest daughter of Robert Longson, who started life as a weaver in Glossop and moved to Burslem in 1860, where he set up a tailor's shop. According to his son, Enoch had been an ambitious child, who, by the age of ten, was earning 2d. an hour teaching in ‘a sort of night school’. Unable to pursue either an academic or a legal career, Enoch took up pottery, and by the age of twenty-two had become a master potter. On his marriage in 1866, his business having failed, he set up as a draper and pawnbroker. Four years later his father died, leaving him some money with which he articled himself to a solicitor, and in 1876 he himself qualified as a solicitor.

Arnold Bennett's early years were beset by his father's financial worries. Nevertheless the Bennett family, Wesleyans though they were, encouraged musical and artistic activities. They were also bookish. From 1877 Bennett attended the endowed school, Wedgwood Institute, Burslem, transferring in 1882 to Newcastle under Lyme middle school. He stayed there for only a year, but in that time was fortunate to be taught French by a gifted master who instilled in him a love of French language and literature that was to last a lifetime. Alone of his class, in 1882 he passed the Cambridge junior local examination, which would have qualified him to go on to Newcastle under Lyme high school, and thence in all probability to university. But in 1883, at the age of sixteen, Bennett left school and began work in his father's office at Piccadilly, Hanley. Here he divided his time between rent collecting and other menial tasks by day, all of them unpaid, and at night studying for his matriculation. His father intended a legal career for him but Bennett repeatedly failed his examinations. He did, however, master Pitman's shorthand, and in March 1889, having borrowed the train fare from his mother, he set off for London, to take up a clerical post with a firm of solicitors, Le Brasseur and Oakley.

In the days since leaving school Bennett had begun to contribute light journalistic articles on such subjects as tramlines and coffee houses to the Staffordshire Sentinel. Once settled in London he began to write more seriously. His first success came with a story, ‘A Letter Home’, published in the Yellow Book (July 1895). Bennett, who had become devoted to the fiction of George Moore, now resolved to write a novel modelled on Moore's naturalistic mode. ‘Life being grey, sinister, and melancholy, the novel must be grey, sinister, and melancholy’ (DNB). The novel, to which Bennett had given the title ‘In the Shadow’, was sent to the publisher John Lane, who asked John Buchan to report on it. Buchan's favourable comments led to the publication in 1898 of what was now called A Man from the North. By then Bennett had long given up his legal work. In 1893 he had become assistant editor of the weekly journal Woman, and three years later he was made editor-in-chief. During this period he began the practice of regular journalism and reviewing which in later years brought him considerable sums of money as well as hostility from a younger generation of writers.

Professional writer

In 1900 Bennett felt sufficiently confident of his future as a writer to resign as editor of Woman. He also left London to set up house at Trinity Hall Farm, near the village of Hockliffe in Bedfordshire, where he installed his parents and younger sister. Here, already the author of two pot-boilers, Journalism for Women (1898) and Polite Farces for the Drawing Room (1899), he finished writing Anna of the Five Towns, on which he had begun work in 1896, immediately after selling his first novel. The novel was completed in 1901 and published more or less alongside The Grand Babylon Hotel in 1902. Bennett, who had become friendly with the writer Eden Phillpotts, followed him in deciding to keep a journal, although Bennett's journals owe rather more to the Goncourt brothers in their scrupulous recording of the details of financial transactions. He was thus able to note that although The Grand Babylon Hotel helped to make his name—it was the first of his books to be reviewed in The Times, and remained in print up to the twenty-first century—it did not fill his purse. He did not of course know that it was going to prove so phenomenal and long-lasting a best-seller, but he quickly realized that he had sold it far too cheaply. The mistake forced him to recognize the value of a good literary agent. Fortunately, one was to hand. At the end of 1901 Bennett had been introduced to J. B. Pinker by H. G. Wells, with whom he was on friendly terms. By the time Bennett set off for France, which he did at the end of 1902, Pinker had agreed to act as agent for his work, an agreement which not only led to a lifelong friendship between the two men but eventually made Bennett one of the highest-paid authors of his age.

It was almost certainly Bennett's desire to be recognized as a serious artist that prompted his move to Paris at the end of 1902. There, and in a house at Fontainebleau, he lived for the next ten years. During this period he married in July 1907 Marie Marguerite Soulié (b. 1874); they were to have no children. In France Bennett developed and widened his expertise as a dedicated man of letters. There were dramatic collaborations with Phillpotts, articles for T. P.'s Weekly, and further pot-boilers, including The Truth about an Author (1903), A Great Man (1904), and Sacred and Profane Love (1905). Bennett may have intended the last of these to be a serious study of sexual passion, although it reads as though an unconscious parody of the school of Elinor Glyn.

Yet to these years belong also Whom God hath Joined (1906), The Old Wives' Tale (1908), and the first volume in the Clayhanger trilogy (1910). These works between them justly established Bennett as a major exponent of realistic fiction. At the same time he maintained his output of lighter fiction, including most memorably The Card (1911), and he also produced a steady stream of literary journalism. In this regard, the short pieces he wrote about books under the pseudonym Jacob Tonson, which were published at regular intervals between 1908 and 1911 in A. R. Orage's New Age, deserve mention. These pieces initiated the type of brief literary essay, aimed at the general ‘cultivated’ reader, which later writers such as J. B. Priestley and V. S. Pritchett took up, and which was perfectly adapted for weekly journals. In 1911 Bennett visited America, which led to Those United States (1912). The visit was a financial success; Bennett sold the serial rights of his projected novel, The Price of Love, to Harpers for £2000 (it was published in novel form in England in 1914), eight essays to Metropolitan for £150 each (they were later gathered together as The Author's Craft, 1914), and the American rights of a hastily planned fourth volume of Clayhanger for £3000. Bennett was accompanied on his voyage over by Edward Knoblock, an American dramatist whom he had first met in London at the Author's Club in May 1911. Bennett, keen to learn more of the craft of writing for the theatre, collaborated with Knoblock on a play entitled Milestones. This, together with other plays successfully produced for the stage, including The Great Adventure (1913; a dramatization of his 1908 novel Buried Alive), brought him yet further fame and money. In 1912 he returned from France to England. He now bought himself a yacht, Velsa, and soon bought a Queen Anne country house at Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex, which he furnished at considerable expense.

Later years

During the First World War Bennett busied himself as a public servant and public man, furthering the war effort. In 1915 he produced a book, Over There, derived from his experiences when sent to France. Three years later, when in 1918 Lord Beaverbrook was made minister of information, Bennett was put in charge of propaganda in France. He devoted considerable energies to the work, but misgivings about the war reveal themselves in his fine novel The Pretty Lady (1918). In Lord Raingo (1926) he memorably anatomizes the kind of public figure with whom war work had brought him increasingly into contact. His introduction to the catalogue which accompanied a showing of Paul Nash's work as a war artist, held at the Leicester Galleries in 1924, provides further evidence of Bennett's less than wholly enthusiastic endorsement of the war. That he should have been asked to write the catalogue also testifies to Bennett's lively and enduring interest in the visual arts. Further evidence of this is to be found in the introduction he wrote in 1919 for a catalogue of an exhibition of modern paintings organized by Osbert, Sacheverell, and Edith Sitwell at the Mansard Gallery, London. The previous year he had agreed to help stand the losses of the distinguished quarterly Art and Letters, which published work by Modigliani, Gaudier-Brzeska, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Herbert Read, and Aldous Huxley.

After the war Bennett gave up the house in Essex. Following the legal separation from his first wife in 1921, he lived in London with Dorothy Muriel Cheston (1891–1977), an English actress, first in George Street, Hanover Square, later in Cadogan Square. Their daughter, Virginia, was born in 1926. During these years Bennett, by now a friend of cabinet ministers and newspaper moguls, including Beaverbrook, went on publishing novels and plays. The latter were for the most part inconsiderable and even unperformed. The best of his post-war novels are Riceyman Steps (1923), Lord Raingo (1926), Accident (1929), and Imperial Palace (1930). For much of the 1920s he was famously the highest-paid literary journalist in England, contributing a weekly column to the Evening Standard, advertisements for which were splashed on the sides of London omnibuses. At the very end of 1930 he and Dorothy went on holiday to France, where he unwisely drank local tap water. By the time they returned to England in the third week of January 1931, Bennett was already ill; influenza was at first suspected, but it was from typhoid fever that he eventually died in his flat at 97 Chiltern Court, Clarence Gate, Regent's Park, London, on the night of 26–7 March 1931, his date of death being formally recorded on his death certificate as 27 March 1931. He was cremated at Golders Green, Middlesex, in April 1931.

Achievement and reputation

Arnold Bennett was a prolific and highly successful author in a wide variety of modes. As essayist, dramatist, occasional travel writer, author of short stories, and, above all, of novels, he profited in most senses of the word from the fact that his career coincided with the pre-eminence of the printed word in cultural life. Yet his very success alienated younger writers suspicious of the professionalism on which he prided himself. Bennett for them exemplified the popular as opposed to the good. They saw him as a man whose concern for his pocket far outweighed concern for the novelist's art. This view of Bennett is most famously advanced in Ezra Pound's poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Life and Contacts) (1919), where a Mr Nixon, met aboard ‘the cream gilded cabin of his steam yacht’, advises the poem's writer-protagonist always to
Consider
Carefully the reviewer.
The line-break and thus pause between the words ‘Consider’ and ‘Carefully’ may well have been intended to mime the stratagems by which Bennett attempted to conquer his stutter. More importantly, the bathos of the conclusion indicates that Mr Nixon has no interest in art's considerations. Nixon indeed offers further advice:
And give up verse, my boy,
There's nothing in it.
Pound may have wanted not merely to impugn Bennett, but to present a more generalized cameo of the kind of author whom he saw as selling out to commercial interest. Yet in some aspects Bennett's profile matches that cameo to perfection. He used his journal to record at each year's end the number of words he had written in the previous twelve months and the amount of money their publication had brought him. And certainly a good deal of his writing was made to order. As a journalist he became an accomplished space-filler, a master of the feuilleton. His plays, lively though their dialogue is, have not worn well; the same may be said of many of his novels, especially those written with an eye to the market in crime and detective fiction, such as Teresa of Watling Street (1904). The Loot of Cities (1905) is a collection of stories which owes much to that fictional anti-hero of the 1890s, Raffles. Bennett came to call these and other such novels ‘fantasias’. His final fiction in this mode, The Strange Vanguard, appeared as late as 1928. Bennett confided in his journal that when reading the proofs of the novel's opening chapters he found them to be ‘very good—brilliant’; there is a temptation to believe that after years of efficiently supplying the fiction market with entertainments, whatever critical judgement Bennett may once have had was by now quite eroded.

Yet from A Man from the North (1898) right through to Imperial Palace (1930) Bennett could produce fictional work of rare distinction. He began as a novelist obedient to the requirements of realism, and he remained loyal to them as he remained loyal to his early hero, George Moore. Bennett often praised the scrupulous attention which he felt that Moore in the 1880s had directed towards the ordinary lives he had studied in several novels, of which perhaps the most important for Bennett was A Mummer's Wife (1885). His admiration for this novel is recorded in various journal entries of the 1890s, most significantly perhaps in the remark that Moore is the only English novelist who can stand comparison with the major French realists. A Mummer's Wife, which in some ways reads like an English version of a novel by Zola, is set in part in that area which Bennett was to make his own. But in one all-important respect he goes beyond his master. Bennett brings far greater understanding to his studies of the five towns than Moore was capable of. While Anna of the Five Towns, the first of Bennett's novels to be set in the Potteries, undoubtedly owes something to Moore's example, the imaginative sympathy of his portrait of the young woman for whom the novel is named extends well beyond Moore's range. It also gives the lie to another familiar criticism of Bennett, first voiced by Virginia Woolf: that while he was capable of describing the bricks and mortar out of which a house is built, he was unable to imagine the life within. Anna Tellwright is a most convincing study of a girl trapped in joyless family circumstances who struggles to do her best for others. Her escape into a loveless marriage is made entirely credible.

From the beginning Bennett was clearly alert to issues which preoccupy other novelists of the period, especially women's rights, and the ‘new woman’. Hence he produced two important novels which turn on married infidelity and divorce. The first of these, Leonora (1903), is marred by the convenient suicide of the heroine's erring husband; this spares her the full pain of the divorce proceedings for which the novel seems to have been preparing us. The second, Whom God hath Joined (1906), is a minor masterpiece in its anatomy of a failing marriage. All through his career, indeed, Bennett showed remarkable insight into the plight of women caught in marriages or by emotional circumstances which bring them little satisfaction but which they nevertheless try to manage in ways that allow them some freedom. This ability shows itself in another excellent work, The Price of Love (1914). On the other hand, as with most of his would-be liberated male contemporaries, Bennett could only cope with suffragettism by condescending to it in a genially jokey manner, as he does in The Lion's Share (1916).

By then, with The Old Wives' Tale and the Clayhanger trilogy behind him, Bennett's major work was done. These novels, important though they are, and impressively though they testify to his thoroughgoing realism, suffer from his habitual recourse to invocations of ‘the riddle at the heart of life’ or ‘life's melancholy’—phrases which testify to a rather debilitating pessimism, and which caused D. H. Lawrence explosively to protest that tragedy should be a great kick at misery. Moreover, the second novel in the trilogy, Hilda Lessways, suffers from the fact that the eponymous heroine is one of Bennett's least convincing female characters; and while the concluding novel, These Twain, marks something of a recovery, especially in its detailed study of a provincial marriage, it is the first novel, Clayhanger itself, that is fit to set beside The Old Wives' Tale. These two ambitious novels most memorably concentrate Bennett's great virtues of patient, scrupulous narrative, together with his ability to accumulate a convincing account of intertwined lives and circumstance, in a place to which he gave lasting identity through his term ‘the five towns’. He can justly be thought of as one of the finest of all regional novelists.

In common with Lawrence and other writers of his age Bennett felt deeply divided about his origins. The Potteries had nurtured him and he turned to them for nearly all his finest work. Yet he clearly felt that in order to become a writer he needed to escape from the environment in which he had grown up. This is explored in the finest of all his short stories, ‘The Death of Simon Fuge’, which formed part of his collection The Grim Smile of the Five Towns (1907).

The Pretty Lady is a much underrated study of England during the war years, especially in its sensitive feeling for the destructive frenzy that underlay much apparently good-hearted patriotism. However, with Mr. Prohack (1922) Bennett might seem finally to have succumbed to the temptation to turn out nothing but undemanding fictional entertainments. The novel's hero, in his untroubled and unquestioning acceptance of the post-war world as it is, including the thousands of unemployed war veterans who throng London's streets, is a monster of complacency, although that is not what Bennett intended. But even then Bennett was not done. Riceyman Steps is a remorseless study of miserliness. Its protagonist, Henry Earlforward, a second-hand bookseller, is constitutionally incapable of generosity—he even sells his wife's previous wedding-ring so he can buy her a cheaper one. (He gives her the change.) Henry's death from stomach cancer reads not merely as symbolically appropriate, but suggests that Bennett was responsive to the then fashionable theories of Homer Lane (an American psychologist who worked in London between 1918 and 1925) and others who proclaimed the psychosomatic basis of all forms of illness.

Bennett liked to keep abreast of new ideas and fashions. When T. S. Eliot was working on Sweeney Agonistes he consulted Bennett about what he called ‘jazz rhythms’. And Accident (1929), a novel which turns on a train crash, for at least half its length tries to ponder the meanings of those cracks and divisions opening up in post-war society for which the general strike, although it is never mentioned, provides the most troubling evidence. Significantly, Bennett began writing the novel in 1926. However, in the latter half of Accident he dissolves the mood of ominous danger which he has so skilfully built up in the opening pages. He thus leaves it to Edward Upward in ‘The Railway Accident’ (1928) and Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies (1930) to develop the potential for dystopic fables of a society about to go smash which Accident begins. The limits of Bennett's realism perhaps lie in his cautious assumption that as things are, so they must be. Nevertheless, at its finest, Bennett's work has rightly commended itself to successive generations of readers and is certain to continue to do so.

John Lucas

Sources  

The journals of Arnold Bennett, ed. N. Flowers, 3 vols. (1932–5) · Letters of Arnold Bennett, ed. J. Hepburn, 1–3 (1966–70) · D. Barker, Writer by trade: a view of Arnold Bennett (1966) · M. Drabble, Arnold Bennett: a biography (1974) · J. Hepburn, ed., Arnold Bennett: the critical heritage (1981) · Letters of Arnold Bennett, ed. J. Hepburn, 4 (1986) · Mrs A. Bennett [M. Bennett], Arnold Bennett (1925) · [M. Bennett], My Arnold Bennett (1931) · D. C. Bennett, Arnold Bennett: a portrait done at home (1935) · DNB · F. Swinnerton, Swinnerton: an autobiography, [new edn] (1937) · R. Pound, Arnold Bennett: a biography (1952) · K. E. Roby, A writer at war (1972) · F. Swinnerton, Arnold Bennett: a last word (1978) · J. Lucas, Arnold Bennett: a study of his fiction (1974) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1931) · d. cert.

Archives  

BL, journal, Add. MS 59841 · Harvard U., Houghton L., journal · Hunt. L., letters, literary MSS · NRA, corresp. and MSS · NRA, priv. coll., MSS, notes, and corresp. with Edward Garnett · Ransom HRC, notebooks and MSS · Stoke-on-Trent City Museum and Art Gallery, corresp. and papers · U. Cal., Berkeley, Bancroft Library, corresp. and literary MSS · UCL, corresp. and MSS · Yale U., Beinecke L., letters and papers |  BL, letters to Mrs Cheston, Add. MS 60391 H · BL, letters to C. F. G. Masterman and Lucy Masterman, Add. MS 62111 · BL, letters to Michael Morton, Add. MS 59877 · BL, letters to Ivor Nicholson and Miss Head, RP2848 [copies] · BL, letters to F. F. Rosher, RP2614 [copies] · BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 56668 · BL, corresp. with Marie Stopes, Add. MS 58497 · BLPES, letters to A. G. Gardiner · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Richard Blaker · Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, corresp. with Edward Verrall Lucas · CUL, letters to Richard Bennett · JRL, letters to Basil Dean · Keele University Library, letters to W. W. Kennerley and Tertin Kennerley, verses, and papers · NL Scot., letters to Sir John Richmond · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Herbert Samuel · Stoke-on-Trent City Museum and Art Gallery, letters to Annie Truscott Wood · TCD, letters to Thomas Bodkin · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Pauline Smith · UCL, letters to André Gide · University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, special collections, corresp. with Frank Swinnerton · University of Rochester, New York, Rush Rhees Library, corresp. with Edward Knoblock

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, documentary recording


Likenesses  

M. du Mayne, watercolour, 1891, City Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent · H. Furniss, three pen-and-ink drawings, c.1910, NPG · A. L. Coburn, photogravure, 1913, NPG · W. Rothenstein, chalk sketch, 1920, City Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent · M. Beerbohm, caricature, 1922 (with H. G. Wells), AM Oxf. · W. E. Tittle, pencil drawing, 1923, NPG · K. Shackleton, chalk drawing, c.1925, Stoke-on-Trent Art Gallery · D. Low, chalk caricature, 1926, NPG · G. C. Beresford, two photographs, 1927, NPG · B. Partridge, ink-and-watercolour caricature, 1928, NPG; repro. in Punch (21 May 1928) · H. Coster, two photographs, 1929, NPG [see illus.] · E. Kapp, chalk drawing, 1929, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham · W. Nicholson, ink caricature, Stoke-on-Trent Art Gallery · OWL, mechanically reproduced caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (2 April 1913) · B. Partridge, pencil caricature, NPG; repro. in Punch (21 May 1928) · T. Spicer-Simson, plasticine medallion, NPG · cigarette card, NPG · print (after D. Low), NPG; repro. in New Statesman (30 Jan 1926)

Wealth at death  

£40,551 18s. 2d.: probate, 19 June 1931, CGPLA Eng. & Wales