This was my first experience with Arnold Bennett’s fiction; I’d previously read his Literary Taste. (He is not to be confused, as I’ve done in the past, with novelist and playwright Alan Bennett (An Uncommon Reader, etc.)!) Bennett (1867–1931) was from the Potteries region of Staffordshire and moved to London in his early twenties to work in a law office. Anna of the Five Towns (1902) was his second novel and first moderate success, but it was The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) and the Clayhanger trilogy (1910–16) that truly made his name.
Bennett was a contemporary of D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Thomas Hardy (though Hardy had given up on novels by that point), and Anna reminds me of each of these authors to an extent – but particularly of Lawrence, what with his working-class Midlands roots. I also frequently thought of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (religious angst) and Far from the Madding Crowd (a heroine who faces romantic entanglements and financial responsibility for the first time).
Twenty-year-old Anna Tellwright is a Methodist Sunday school teacher and lives with her twelve-year-old sister, Agnes, and their ill-tempered father, Ephraim, in “Bursley” (Bennett’s name for Burslem, now part of Stoke-on-Trent). The family is well off thanks to Ephraim’s canny property investments and inheritances he and his late wife received. Yet Anna is still dumbfounded to learn, on her twenty-first birthday, that she’s worth £50,000. Ephraim, generally referred to as “the miser” – there’s no nuance here; he’s typecast and never rises above the label – is happy to turn over certain aspects of the business to Anna, like hounding their tenants the Prices for late rent, but doesn’t give her autonomy over her daily spending. She must meekly approach her father each time she wants to purchase something for herself.
Anna has a suitor, Henry Mynors, whose business Ephraim supports as a sleeping partner. She loves the idea of being loved – and the suspicion that she has unwittingly wrenched a desirable prospect away from pretty Beatrice Sutton. But she doesn’t seem to be truly in love with Henry, just like her heart isn’t fully committed to the local revival put on by the Methodists. After all, she hasn’t had the emotional conversion experience that would prove irrefutably that she is saved. Much as she beats herself up over her so-called sins, the desired transformation never arrives. Instead, the closest thing she has to an epiphany comes when she’s standing atop a hill on the Isle of Man on her first-ever holiday:
She perceived that the monotony, the austerity, the melancholy of her existence had been sweet and beautiful of its kind, and she recalled, with a sort of rapture, hours of companionship with the beloved Agnes, when her father was equable and pacific. Nothing was ugly nor mean. Beauty was everywhere, in everything.
The Prices take on unforeseen significance in the novel, and in her dealings with them Anna is caught between a wish to be Christlike in her compassion and the drive to act as the shrewd businesswoman her father expects. Though she is eventually able to wrest back something like financial independence, she remains bound by the social convention of marrying well.
Anna is more timid and introspective than your average heroine; I felt great sympathy for her not in spite of but because of those character traits. I recently took the Myers-Briggs test for the first time, and wondered if Anna could be an ISTJ like me – she dreads having to visit her pupils’ homes and make small talk with the parents, comes across as curt when nervous, and can’t seem to turn her brain off and just feel instead. (Kate Scott of Parchment Girl runs a blog series about characters who exemplify the different Myers-Briggs personality types.)
There’s a lack of subtlety to Bennett’s writing, something I particularly noted in the physical descriptions (“She was tall, but not unusually so, and sturdily built up. Her figure, though the bust was a little flat, had the lenient curves of absolute maturity”) and some heavy-handed foreshadowing (“It was on the very night after this eager announcement that the approaching tragedy came one step nearer”). But I can let him off considering that this was published 115 years ago. It’s an excellent example of regional literature (can you think of another book set in Staffordshire?), with Anna’s visit to Henry’s pottery works a particular highlight. Bennett takes an unpromising setting and rather humble people and becomes their bard:
Nothing could be more prosaic than the huddled, red-brown streets; nothing more seemingly remote from romance. Yet be it said that romance is even here—
Several miles away, the blast-furnaces of Cauldron Bar Ironworks shot up vast wreaths of yellow flame with canopies of tinted smoke. Still more distant were a thousand other lights crowning chimney and kiln, and nearer, on the waste lands west of Bleakridge, long fields of burning ironstone glowed with all the strange colours of decadence. The entire landscape was illuminated and transformed by these unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime, and dull, weird sounds, as of the breathings and sighings of gigantic nocturnal creatures, filled the enchanted air.
The tea, made specially magnificent in honour of the betrothal, was such a meal as could only have been compassed in Staffordshire or Yorkshire—a high tea of the last richness and excellence, exquisitely gracious to the palate, but ruthless in its demands on the stomach. At one end of the table … was a fowl which had been boiled for four hours; at the other, a hot pork-pie, islanded in liquor, which might have satisfied a regiment. Between these two dishes were … hot pikelets, hot crumpets, hot toast, sardines with tomatoes, raisin-bread, currant-bread, seed-cake, lettuce, home-made marmalade and home-made jams. The repast occupied over an hour, and even then not a quarter of the food was consumed.
I enjoyed this for the pacey plot, the religious theme, the sympathetic protagonist, and the loving look at an industrial area. I’ll certainly be looking out for copies of Bennett’s other novels in secondhand bookshops; meanwhile, Project Gutenberg also has a good selection of his writings. (My copy was withdrawn from Lambeth Libraries stock and sold for 10 pence.)