Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger & Do Costume Dramas Matter?

Clayhanger penguin 20th century bennett 9780140182699-usHow 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.

clayhanger bennett penguin tv cover 9780140009972-uk-300Bennett’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.

clayhanger tv and book cover ch03But 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?

hilda lessways md6774804080So 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.

13 thoughts on “Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger & Do Costume Dramas Matter?

  1. Personally, I think there’s room for Woold *and* Bennett in the reading world! As for the costume dramas – well, back in the day the BBC produced ones of quality that were worth watching. But the likelihood of the recent War and Peace getting anyone reading the book are slim, I would say….


    • Yes, I know: it was Woolf who objected (and mind, you, I love her work). War and Peace did become a best-seller in the UK after the latest miniseries and my posts on W&P are now much more frequently visited. Good miniseries, bad miniseries: People want to tread the book!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Costume dramas matter a lot: that’s why it’s nothing short of semi-criminal (too strong a word), unethical then, that PBS has turned to these thrillers. They could budget for sharing more of the very good film adaptations that the BBC and ITV create. We’ve missed two years of adaptations of superb 19th century European novels now.

    I’ve read Clayhanger but don’t remember it very well; I recall it as a grim book but strong. Also Anna of the Five Towns. But I want to recommend Margaret Drabble’s great literary biography; it is memorable. She was strongly influenced by Bennet.

    Woolf was defending experimentation and writing to critique an attitude of mind that marginalized a woman’s point of view, women novelists, women readers especially. She had in mind the way Galsworthy presented women in his novels. If Mrs Brown had sat down next to Philip Roth we’d understand better.


    • Yes, I owe so much to costume dramas! I can only hope the new Poldark last year found more readers for the book. I did get the idea that many enjoyed it. I wish PBS showed more adaptations of novels. Downton Abbey is all very well (though it wasn’t for me) but they could really use a brisk revival of “masterpieces.” Isn’t it odd that PBS didn’t pick up “War and Peace” or something similar in the last year?
      It’s been years since Bennett and I’m surprised at how good these books are (especially Hilda Lessways, which could probably be read without Clayhanger). I thought I had the biography of Bennett but do not: I hope I didn’t weed it.
      Yes, Bennett was writing at the wrong time! Well, he and Galsworthy have survived on a kind of parallel timeline. They’re not the most elegant, but they’re excellent in their way. Woolf was by far the greatest modernist!


  3. t’s interesting that Woolf didn’t attack Galsworthy as she did Bennett. Perhaps she didn’t think him worth attacking, but I’m inclined to think that she disliked Bennett for the same reasons she disliked Joyce: class and aesthetics. It wasn’t just that Bennett and Joyce were lower-class, from Woolf’s view, but they didn’t mind being lower-class.


    • It has been years since I read Woolf’s essays, but I remember dismissing her attack on Bennett . You’re probably right about the class thing!. There are several very good realistic American novels of the twentieth century that are called classics but really dismissed escept for their politcs: every one of us would rather read Edith Wharton, Hemingway,and F. Scott Fitzgerald than spend more than a few minutes in the world of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie,or Ellen Glasgow’s Barren Land. Granted, those last three are over-the-top in a way Bennett is not!


  4. Definitely room for Woolf and Bennett – enjoying one doesn’t preclude you from enjoying the other. I always have mixed feelings about costume dramas, and don’t always watch them because the characters aren’t as I imagine they should be, or they don’t capture the feel of the novel, but I have to admit I’ve probably come to a lot of books via BBC adaptations.


    • I don’t think anyone suggests there’s not room for Woolf and Bennett!

      Costume dramas can be good or bad. “Masterpiece Theater” used to introduce Americans to “minor(?)” classics that were out of print in the U.S.: Nancy Mitford, H. E. Bates, etc. In recent years, alas, it has been mostly Downton Abbey or remakes of Jane Austen (and I adore Austen, but enough of the miniseries!). PBS is showing fewer Brit miniseries these days because cable stations are buying them instead. We don’t have cable, so I am way behind on my costume dramas (except for the recent movie “Testament of Youth,” which was excellent).


  5. I need to read Clayhanger. Last year I read The Old Wives’ Tale and loved it, and then I downloaded several more of his books onto my Kindle and promptly forgot about them. I think of Bennett and Galsworthy (and also George Gissing) as bridge authors. They present a more modern, and sometimes strikingly feminist, viewpoint, although they aren’t modernist in style.

    I also need to see the new Testament of Youth. I remember the old Masterpiece Theater version, which made me pick up Vera Brittain’s books, which then led me to Winifred Holtby. Looking at the previews for the new version last year, I was afraid they’d Harlequined it up, but I’ll trust your recommendation.


    • Oh, I love being able to find the free e-books! And I want to read more Bennett, too. “Bridge authors” is a great phrase. I do think the three writers you mention are neglected.
      Testament of Youth was surprisingly good. I never expect much of these movies, but the actress was excellent and it is a very moving, tragic portrait of war.


  6. I can forgive costume dramas almost anything because they led me to Trollope many years ago. The academics had no respect for him at that time, but he is the writer for me. So are Arnold Bennett and the best of H.G. Wells. They saw lower middle class and working class lives as just as important and full of emotional content and moral dilemmas as the lives of the professional classes, country gentlemen and minor aristocrats. Dreiser in, for example, An American Tragedy, did the same and he still doesn’t get much respect.


    • I feel the same about costume dramas! They had a big effect on American reading. Trollope now has his place, perhaps because of costume dramas! I do agree that the three others are neglected. It does seem to be about class, doesn’t it?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s