In the last few years there has been a welcome revival of interest in English fiction of the period between the 1880s and the outbreak of the First World War. We have had several biographies of the major figures, two more of which are noticed below. Good work of a more general kind has improved our sense of the period and of the circumstances of men of letters who lived through its changes.1 Soon it should be possible for the right author to provide a synoptic study of the period, which is what we now need.
Nor is this simply a matter of satisfying disinterested historical curiosity, for the social and cultural crisis of those years shaped our own literary world. The same unprecedented social forces which partly determined the writing and the lives of Gissing, Wells, and Bennett continue to affect ours.
It is easy enough to give the rudiments of a historical account. The Education Act of 1870 created the possibility of a vast though barely literate reading public, and when school attendance was enforced in 1880 this public came immediately into being. In that same year George Newnes founded Tit-Bits, a weekly designed to furnish the new public with digestible snippets of information; it was still a popular paper in the Thirties, and so was Northcliffe’s Answers, a close imitation. Both men grew rich: Newnes usefully spent some of his profits on Strand Magazine, consisting mostly of middlebrow stories, but Northcliffe embarked on a career which included the foundation of the new “yellow” press, The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror, and, eventually, the ownership of The Times.
Hitherto almost all newspapers had been of the kind now labeled “quality,” and political and literary opinion was controlled by the upper-class weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies. By the mid-Eighties these had lost their power, and the great provincial newspapers also began to slide, for the cheap London dailies could be distributed almost everywhere by train or wire.
Northcliffe’s career, founded on the new reading public, was therefore responsible for many changes we still deplore: the loss of the cultural autonomy of the regions; the subordination of news and informed opinion to advertising and promotional stunts; and the sharpening of the division of the reading public into high and low, with contempt on both sides. The belated expansion of the English universities about this time may have increased upward mobility but did nothing to heal the breach.
But the revolution in journalism had one other, more complicated effect. It opened some kind of a career in writing to all the talents; so many millions of words must be written, and paid for. Arnold Bennett was paid twenty guineas in 1891 for a successful entry in a Tit-Bits competition; it was his first literary reward. In 1893 he became a subeditor on Woman, one of the new papers for the new public. And he remained a journalist all his life, whether writing for the highbrow New Age or the mass-circulation Evening Standard; in fact the last piece he wrote before his death was for his weekly Standard column. He did not even write a novel until 1898; and his profit on that book, A Man From the North, was one guinea.
The novel had also recently undergone a transformation which, though economic in origin, drastically altered its literary character. The three-volume novel, imposed on publishers by the omnipotent circulating library of Mudie, collapsed quite suddenly in the mid-Eighties. Mudie had controlled not only the length and structure of novels, but also their morality. On the other hand his virtual monopoly of the middle-class market promised to authors who would comply with his formula a degree of economic shelter. The new novel, generally sold at six shillings and much shorter, was freer in form and might say some things that Mudie’s emphasis on family reading prevented. But it had to succeed in an unstructured market; it had to be sold hard. Gissing, who deplored the constraints of the three-decker, nevertheless dreaded the economic chaos left by its disappearance. In fact he believed that the market in its new phase would not support the existing number of novelists, though he saw that it would offer good livings to a new breed of literary men, willing to treat literature frankly as a commodity.
Gissing is a figure of prime importance to students of this crucial period; New Grub Street, a remarkable achievement in itself, has the additional interest of encapsulating its economic moment. Born in 1857, Gissing was not too old to have benefited from the opportunities of the new journalism; but he eschewed it, thinking of himself not as a literary operator but as a novelist, and primarily a three-decker man at that. New Grub Street (1891) chronicles a literary world transformed by “the multiplication of ephemerides,” a world in which the old-style man of letters slipped into poverty while the new men established careers of an entirely commercial kind. Jasper Milvain, the character who has the fluency and lack of moral concern necessary to this new literary trade, is corrupted by it; but the serious novelists, Reardon and Biffen, are driven to early deaths.
New Grub Street gives a very complete and depressing account of life in this new literary world. Decreasing income could force a man across the terrible line dividing the middle class from the poor; he might bear it, but his wife could not, and Gissing’s preference for working girls—he married first a grisette, English style, and later a stonemason’s daughter—was certainly in part caused by a real fear of living with a declassed woman, though it probably had other and more obscure psychological motives. Reardon has a middle-class wife, and is financially much less successful than his creator, but their difficulties are essentially the same. Reardon falls between two stools; in an attempt to satisfy the market he writes “what is too empty to please the better kind of readers, yet not vulgar enough to please the worse.” In a world of smatterers he still talks about the “art of fiction”; consequently he fails as a writer, and sinks into the condition of a mere wage-earner, whereupon his wife leaves him.
For this same market James wrote his last novels, and Conrad, desperate for success, his early ones. Wells and Bennett, who knew it as well as Gissing, had more buoyancy, and played it as if to do so were a particularly tough and even enjoyable game. Gissing brought to it an imagination of disaster. How he came to do so is in part the theme of Miss Tindall’s book.
She writes as one capable novelist commenting on another, but without putting on airs; and she has done enough research to add to existing knowledge of the subject. Shrewd rather than deep, she handles the relationship of Gissing’s odd, sad life to his books, including the ones nobody reads, with tact and skill. Of lower-middle-class Yorkshire origin, Gissing started badly by getting himself thrown out of the university college at Manchester for stealing from cloakrooms; that he did so in order to save a girl from prostitution cut no ice with the academic authorities, or with the magistrate. He went to prison, and thence to the US, where he taught at Waltham High School in Massachusetts. Before he was twenty-one he had married his prostitute and was working as a clerk in a London hospital. As she sank into alcoholism he wrote novels, of which the third, Demos, had some success in 1886. The girl died and Gissing, having considered in New Grub Street the question of the writer’s marital choice, married his second working-class wife in 1892. He left her, and their two children, in 1897, and soon afterward set up house with Gabrielle Fleury, an educated Frenchwoman who translated New Grub Street. He died, much as Reardon died in the book, in 1903.
Writers of the period seem to have had a passion for keeping a very exact account of their earnings. Gissing was full of admiration when Wells told him he had made £1056.7.9 in 1896; but he himself, in the previous year, made over £500, the equivalent today of about £6000. This is nothing compared with the future earnings of Wells and Bennett (who annually counted up not only his earnings but his output of words) but it is more than all but the most successful make nowadays. So, after his early days of poverty, Gissing was not a “failure.” But, as Miss Tindall says, he was habitually depressed and anxious.
Worries about class contributed to his anxiety. The son of a small-town pharmacist, he was born into that vague class border country between the Two Nations. Its inhabitants, ever conscious of the proximity of the frontiers of poverty, sought to prove their gentility by being “genteel,” by insisting on the refined table manners, the cultural bric-à-brac, they associated with the secure middle classes. Yet, as Miss Tindall remarks, Gissing enjoyed in the house of his mother and his sister a standard of comfort he could not achieve in his own; and this only exacerbated his social anxiety. She seems unduly contemptuous of his desire for classical learning, attributing to snobbery what belonged to his legitimate image of himself as a man of letters;2 but on his attitude to women, instinctively sympathetic, consciously repressive, she makes good sense. It was clever to observe that what made Gissing’s “guilty secret”—the theft—so awful for him was that theft, unlike, say, embezzlement, was a working-class crime. Less convincing is her attribution of his habitual gloominess about the decline of society and letters to ill health. There was cause enough for gloom.
To see and exploit the situation as it was, to overcome immense social and personal handicaps—small-town midland origin and accent, a terrible stammer—was the achievement of Arnold Bennett. No Jasper Milvain, he made himself rich without behaving basely, and without forfeiting his power to write well. His career is already well documented, but one can see that it might tempt a modern novelist-journalist, conscious of being in some sense a literary descendant of Bennett, to offer her version of it.
Miss Drabble’s long biography has had a rapturous reception in England. To discover why would entail research that might culminate in a new New Grub Street; all one can do here is to register dissent and dismay.
The book is so badly written, so offensive to the internal ear, that I broke off reading it and took up one of Miss Drabble’s novels—The Waterfall, as it happens—to reassure myself that she can do better when she’s trying. Bennett, if he were around, would almost certainly be writing popular biographies aimed at the Sunday color-supplement public, but he would never allow his prose to slop out onto the page as Miss Drabble does. The writing is of a kind I have heard described as “biodegradable”; some sentences deliquesce before one’s eyes. “The girls were rather reluctantly bullied into sewing.” “King’s Cross was the first place in London that I ever saw, and at the age of nine its promise was enormous.” “D. H. Lawrence applied to him for work, which sensibly enough he could not find.”
The war grinds to a halt, the strain begins to tell, relief goes to the head. Books are deeply moving, and subjects are handled with profound insight. Here is a critical comment on Riceyman Steps, a book easy, but not this easy, to commend: “There is something wonderful about it. How amazing, how various and odd, one says to oneself on finishing it. How very interesting, one thinks.” Authors who are even temporarily tone deaf ought to have editors not so handicapped. Here such help was apparently lacking; for even if he also had a tin ear, I personally feel, as Miss Drabble would say, that an editor could not fail to correct the text when it misspells a Bennett title, or talks about Armenian Methodists.
This is the kind of thing you must put up with if you want to hear Miss Drabble’s affectionate, self-congratulatory account of Bennett’s life. Perhaps it serves him right—he helped to open up the possibilities for novelists’ journalism; but he was proud of his skill in such matters, and Miss Drabble’s book, though it frequently acknowledges its indebtedness to Bennett, is inferior to his most casual productions.
Bennett’s influence cannot be judged by this book and its reception. It is not wholly malign. He had in mind the needs, as well as the pennies, of the larger literary public; he himself had emerged from the top stratum of Tit-Bits readers, and never saw any reason why he could not reach down to it without harm to the reader or to himself; it was a matter of knowing how. There is nothing new about being able both to potboil and to be serious without letting one activity spoil the other, but it requires great common sense and a technician’s understanding of the market and all its instruments. Bennett had these, and in his cheery, intelligent, venturesome way used them to get everything he wanted—the best of everything, and fame as well as money. He was copious, industrious, and for all his social and temperamental disadvantages equable; he had a kind of wisdom that was useful to himself and could be sold to others. A fine eye for detail, an alive but not too troublesome conscience—these qualities show on every page of the journals, and indeed in almost all his writing.
Once past the barriers erected by wealth and snobbery, he became an acceptable friend of the great. Beaver-brook sensibly made him responsible for British propaganda in France during the war, and later gave him intimate Cabinet details for his political novel Lord Raingo. When Beaverbrook acquired the Evening Standard in 1923, Bennett advised him to keep it in touch with the educated public, and to see that it was well written. Beaverbrook took this advice, and in 1926 hired Bennett to write a weekly column called “Books and Persons.” It appeared regularly from 1926 until Bennett’s death in 1931. Bennett had earlier written a column for Orage’s highbrow weekly The New Age, working for almost nothing. Now, with practiced equanimity and for very high fees, he addressed himself to a mass literary public; and soon he was the greatest power in the English book world.
He wrote the columns fast, but did not neglect his homework; and although they have been bitterly condemned by literary elitists it is hard to see how, on the whole, they can have done as much harm as good. He took for his topics all the aspects of the literary market that he felt ought to interest “the common reader with a sane curiosity about the going round of wheels.” Good work habits, prices, children’s books, the Indian book market, the theater, thrillers, the radio, new French books—all these were parts of the literary face of that “magnificently commonplace world” he always regarded as his subject. He instructed his readers in the merits of Balzac, Hardy, Meredith, and Conrad; he plugged Faulkner, Hemingway, and Lawrence, singled out Greene, Waugh, Ivy Compton-Burnett, disparaged James and proclaimed with all his authority the supremacy of Dostoevsky. In a way, he did for England, as an old man, what Edmund Wilson as a young man did for America, although the mind is less acute, more commonplace, more easily mistaken for that of a highbrow-baiter, despite all the talk of Julien Benda, Eliot, and Joyce. Still, the intention was to heal, not irritate, cultural schisms. Of Virginia Woolf, who had often roughed him up, he wrote that she was “queen of the highbrows; and I am a lowbrow. But it takes all sorts to make a world.”
Bennett liked to call himself “a fully-equipped artist.” He could dash off such titles as How to Live on 24 Hours a Day and also write unignorable novels: The Old Wives’ Tale, Clayhanger, Riceyman Steps. All exhibit what he called “technique”—that attention to accuracy of impression and fineness of design he thought absent from the Victorian novel, something that had to be imported from France. How then did it happen that he thought Henry James boring, or that James found Bennett so deficient precisely in what he called the doing? Clayhanger, he remarked, was a monument to nothing except “the quarried and gathered material it happens to contain”—certainly not to “a pursued and captured meaning.”
Bennet could say that “an artist must be interested primarily in presentment, not in the thing presented,” but these Jamesian words have not a Jamesian sense. Bennett’s “technique” went to the construction of what the master grudgingly called a “tight rotundity”; he cared little for the more difficult technical inventions that absorbed James, Ford, and Conrad. Hardly willing to read them, he never really saw what they were up to; and it is not surprising that in 1914, the year of James’s hostile comments on his most famous novels, Bennett admitted that he attached “less and less importance to good technique in fiction. I love it, and I have fought for a better recognition of its importance in England, but I now have to admit that the…greatest novelists of the world, according to my standards, have either ignored technique or failed to understand it.”
Bennett’s notion of “technique” is not contemptible; it is inescapably and honorably related to the idea of craft, of doing things right, making them accurate and shapely, like a pot or a chair. The Bennett novel he wrote that resembles Conrad is Riceyman Steps, and it is, as Conrad observed, a remarkable achievement; but it seems a lesser work than The Old Wives’ Tale because that kind of formal intensity did not really suit Bennett; the book is a tour de force. He knew this; he admired Conrad and admitted in his Journal that Chance was an achievement quite beyond him. But he was quite without envy, even a little bored.
For different reasons he paid many generous tributes to an ungrateful Lawrence, but was once more free of envy or the desire to imitate. He knew what he could do; he was not a genius, and he was not in that line of obsessed technologists that runs from James, Ford, and Conrad to the New Novel. And so he got on better with a public still not wholly indifferent to skill and craftsmanship, but uninterested in extreme experiment; and Conrad envied him for that. When Chance, a very complex book, became a best seller in 1913, Conrad was gratified and James astonished. Such are the vagaries of the market, and such they still are. Bennett, if anyone, could have explained them; which is partly why he himself still needs to be explained.
October 31, 1974
For example, William Bellamy’s The Novels of Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy (1971), Bernard Bergonzi’s The Early H.G. Wells (1961) and his essay on Gissing in the Penguin New Grub Street (1968), John Gross’s Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), P.J. Keating’s The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction (1971), Samuel Hynes’s The Edwardian Turn of Mind (1968). More and more supplementary material becomes available as letters are published and biographers given access to archives. ↩
Commenting on Gissing’s isolation, she classes him as homo solo, which at least makes it clear that she herself is beyond caring about the niceties of dead languages. ↩