How very much I enjoyed rereading Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger (1910), a compelling realistic novel in the tradition of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga! Bennett is less known in the U.S. than the Nobel-winning Galsworthy, but they have similar strengths: both are superb storytellers, if not always elegant stylists, and their chronicles of work, marriage, and changing social mores among the middle classes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are fascinating, moving, and historically significant.
It has occurred to me that I owe a debt to British costume dramas. I would never have discovered Bennett or Galsworthy without “Masterpiece Theater,” which has shown British TV adaptations of novels for many years. Clayhanger has not been in print in the U.S. (except in print-on-demand and e-book editions) since PBS aired the TV show in 1976. I may roll my eyes when I read a review of Julian Fellowe’s adaptation of Doctor Thorne, but the series would have sent me running to the bookstore when I was young.
Bennett’s Clayhanger trilogy (Clayhanger, Hilda Lessways, and These Twain) is an enthralling story of provincial life. Set in the fictitious Five Towns, which are based on six towns in the Potteries district of Staffordshire where Bennett grew up, Clayhanger is a bildungsroman that follows the shy, awkward character Edwin Clayhanger from school graduation to early middle age. The son of a successful printer, he hopes to escape going into his father’s business when he leaves school and become an architect instead. His dreams are soon squelched. Why? Because it is impossible to resist his father Darius, at least if you are Edwin. And we become sympathetic when we learn Darius’ story , which, sadly Edwin never learns.
When Darius was seven, his family was evicted and they spent a brutally Dickensian night in the workhouse before a Sunday school teacher named Shushian, who remembered Darius as a promising student, saved the family and found both father and son work. Darius had to work long hours in brutal conditions, but eventually became a printer’s devil and bought an enormous business.
Edwin doesn’t quite have Darius’s oomph, but he is smart and rapidly becomes involved in the business. When his father buys a “new” used printing machine, it is a great occasion.
The descriptions of the workplace and machinery are fascinating. The floor has been rickety in the building for years, but Darius has ignored this. The new machine is very heavy.
Edwin could not keep out of the printing office. He went inconspicuously and, as it were, by accident up the stone steps, and disappeared into the interior. When you entered the office you were first of all impressed by the multiplicity of odours competing for your attention, the chief among them being those of ink, oil, and paraffin. Despite the fact that the door was open and one window gone, the smell and heat in the office on that warm morning were notable. Old sheets of the “Manchester Examiner” had been pinned over the skylight to keep out the sun, but, as these were torn and rent, the sun was not kept out. Nobody, however, seemed to suffer inconvenience. After the odours, the remarkable feature of the place was the quantity of machinery on its uneven floor. Timid employees had occasionally suggested to Darius that the floor might yield one day and add themselves and all the machinery to the baker’s stores below; but Darius knew that floors never did yield.
The floor does indeed almost break under the new machine, but Edwin does something with pulleys and hooks and prevents a disaster.
But how does Edwin’s soul live? He is stimulated by the company of the Orgreave family, whose son Charlie Orgreaves (known as the Sunday) attended school with him. Mr. Orgreave is an architect, and his wife and children read, listen to music, and discuss art and architecture. Edwin attempts to do architectural drawings and begins to read French novels.
But what about his love life? Janet Orgreave is charming, but he is attracted to her fierce, brooding friend, Hilda Lessways. Hilda sometimes visits, and Edwin and Hilda fall in love, but it comes to nothing. His father refuses to pay him more than one pound a week, even when he is 30. It’s a very, very stuffy household. How can anyone live?
So many disappointments for Edwin. The characters are all bottled up. But you need to read the whole trilogy to really appreciate what happens. There are many gaps in the first book The second novel, Hilda Lessways, fills in all the gaps about her character. And she has work, too: she ends up running a rooming house.
Fortunately Edwin and Hilda meet again eventually and…
Bennett was influenced by French and Russian writers. According to the intro to the Penguin, H. G. Wells said Anna of the Five Towns was ‘an underdeveloped photograph.” Bennett explained “the degree of development was that of Turgenev and Flaubert.”
Bennett has his fans, but in a way he got cheated, because of the rise of modernism and the way it pushed everything out of its path. You were either the brilliant (a) Virginia Woolf, H.D., Djuna Barnes, Dorothy Richardson, and James Joyce (whom Woolf hated, by the way) or the unfashionable (b) John Galsworthy, Elizabeth von Arnim, H. G. Wells, and Arnold Bennett (whom Woolf hated, by the way.)
And so that leaves Woolf. Woof!
No, I’m joking. I love Woolf.
Woolf loved some books better than others
And I like more books than Woolf liked.