Bibliobits: Arnold Bennett’s “Anna of the Five Towns” & Jeanette Watson on Hand-Selling Books

Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns (1902) is  one of those wonderful early twentieth-century novels that carry on the Victorian tradition of telling rip-roaring stories with superb social insights.   Perhaps this classic is not in the canon–It’s hard to keep up with the evaluation of Bennett–but it is one of the best business novels of the twentieth century.  Bennett reminds me slightly of  George Gissing, another writer who chronicles the tension between love and money.  And Bennett’s portrait of the heroine Anna Tellwright, a miser’s daughter who has never handled more money than is needed to do the marketing, is sharply-observed and sympathetic.

In this brilliant novel about religion, money, and love, Bennett interweaves these conflicting elements with the dramatic shaping of scenes:  some disdain his minute descriptions of everything from a maid’s apron to an inventory of furniture in the Tellwrights’ house, but every detail matters and contributes to the drama.

In the opening chapter, we do not immediately meet Anna; instead, Bennett sketches a scene in which the most important characters in her life wait for her outside the Sunday school.  Her younger half-sister, twelve-year-old Agnes, has just burst out of the Sunday school, happy because she has won a book, a Sunday School prize.  And handsome Henry Mynors, a popular businessman who is the morning superintendent of  the Sunday school, teases Agnes about her prize while he waits for Anna.

‘I’m sure you don’t deserve that prize. Let me see if it isn’t too good for you.’ Mynors smiled playfully down upon Agnes Tellwright as he idly turned the leaves of the book which she handed to him. ‘Now, do you deserve it? Tell me honestly.’

She scrutinised those sparkling and vehement black eyes with the fearless calm of infancy. ‘Yes, I do,’ she answered in her high, thin voice, having at length decided within herself that Mr. Mynors was joking.

Most of the main characters are involved with the Methodist Sunday school in one way or another.  Accompanying Mynor is Willie Price, secretary of the men’s Bible class, a bashful young man whose father, the head of the Sunday school,  rents a run-down factory from Anna and Agnes’ father, Ephraim Tellwright–and they are in financial trouble.   And then there is Mrs. Sutton, the cheerful wife of an eminent businessman who runs the sewing society and other charitable groups.

When Anna emerges, she is perfectly poised.   It is the confident Mynors who walks her home, while Willie fades away.  Anna suspects that Mynors is infatuated with her, but she isn’t quite sure, because she has never had a friend, let alone a boyfriend.  Her father is a miser, and she is his housekeeper. They live in poverty, though he is one of the richest men in town.  She is so used to eking out pennies that she only half-realizes her father’s wealth.

On her 21st birthday, her father calls her into his office:  she inherits 50,000 pounds from her mother, who died 20 years ago.  Her father’s idea, of course, is to use her as a puppet for financial transactions.  Ironically, she owns the run-down factory Willie Price and his father rent from them, and since they are behind on the rent, he forces Anna to go collect it.

Appalled by the conditions of the factory, Anna empathizes with the Prices. They simply do not have the money.  I would like to say that Anna rebels and manages the money herself, but that of course would not be like life.  Gradually, with the help of Mrs. Sutton, who includes her in the women’s social circles and invites her on a vacation, and her relationship with Mynor,  she learns about money and manages to break free.  But her way to freedom is not entirely satisfactory…

Really, you’ll have to read it!

IF YOU WERE A BOOKSELLER, WHAT BOOKS WOULD YOU HAND-SELL?  Jeanette Watson, owner of Books & Co in New York from 1977 to 1997 and the author of a memoir, It’s My Party, writes at the Literary Hub about her favorite books to hand-sell during her bookstore days.  Among them is one of my favorites, Easy Travel to Other Planets by Ted Mooney. I thought I was the only person on the planet who had read this.

She writes,

This amazing book is about a female researcher who has a love affair with the dolphin she is studying. The love scenes are amazingly erotic and made me long for my own dolphin! Would that be considered adultery? Maybe married people could do this without guilt? We sold many copies of this too.

Watson also inspires me to want to read Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters.  She writes,

My customers also had an influence on my reading. I remember John Guare telling me to read The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki. “It’s the Gone With the Wind of Japanese literature,” he said: a line I borrowed when I suggested the fabulous book to others.

A fabulous list!