Writer by Trade: A Portrait of Arnold Bennett
Arnold Bennett is in limbo. In a time when many writers are famous mainly for being famous, he is ignored for being ignored. What ineffectuality could be worse than that of a novelist who is so merely known about? Bennett hasn’t even the piquancy which attaches to the totally unknown, the literary equivalent of that tiny restaurant as yet unspoiled. We are all (rightly) willing to be gallant on behalf of a novelist like Christina Stead whose new fame suddenly surfaces from nowhere. But in the case of Bennett (1867-1931), we know what we know: that he had a drooping eyelid, wrote very long and altogether unexperimental novels about the Potteries, was something of an Edwardian vulgarian (a “card?”), and made a great deal of money. His obsession with fact, his knowing worldliness—wasn’t he merely the C. P. Snow of his day, and where are the Snows of yesteryear? With the notable exception of John Wain (a first-rate essay), none of the critics who count, who really influence the taste of new generations, has argued for Bennett—one had almost said has interceded for him.
A reading of The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) and Clayhanger (1910) might perhaps be enough to instate Bennett. But what will persuade our friends (as distinct, say, from our aunts and uncles) to read him? No use toying with the opening pages—Bennett, like most of his Victorian masters, needs space and takes his time. Partly because space and time are so much of his subject matter. Partly because the undeflected, unpausing cumulative force which he creates in his best novels is the counterpart of his central understanding of life, its own cumulative force. Life, the mere passing of time with its strange hazards, does torture Bennett’s men and women, but it does so not with the rack and thumbscrew of a more lurid imagination, but with peine forte et dure, the slow increasing of the weights upon the suffering prisoner. Such was the traditional torture for those who refused to speak, and in Bennett’s world the highest honors are paid to those who preserve such a stoical quietude in the face of the commonplace miseries: illness, ageing, bereavement, disloyalty. The sisters in The Old Wives’ Tale, Constance and Sophia, lead different lives, from different centers of self, and yet what they have in common is a private dignity, a sense that a true reserve is cognate with true reserves, whether of energy, will, or principle.
OLD-FASHIONED MORALIZING? In this Bennett stands apart from the modern novel, but it is not clear that the eccentricity is altogether his. His novels make you wonder whether there is everything to be said (everything, not something) for the present view, which equates the morally intelligent in a writer with the morally exploratory. Bennett is as little concerned with moral exploration as a writer can decently be; he believes, as do his characters (and as most people still do, despite all the publicized moral …