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Summary Article: Bennett, Arnold
From Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature: The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction

Enoch Arnold Bennett (May 27, 1867-March 27, 1931) was a British novelist, critic, essayist, and playwright. He was born in the town of Hanley, Staffordshire, in the heart of the “Potteries” district of northern England – a region so named for its industrial character and preeminence in the making of ceramics. This area was immortalized by Bennett as the “Five Towns” of his best-known works, which include the novels Anna of the Five Towns (1902a), The Old Wives' Tale (1908b), Clayhanger (1910a), Hilda Lessways (1911), and These Twain (1916), along with numerous short stories. His representations of life in the region in which he grew up were largely influenced by the naturalism of the French writers who inspired Bennett, most notably Balzac, Zola, de Maupassant, Flaubert, and the Goncourt brothers. Bennett was educated in local schools and raised in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. His father qualified as a solicitor late in life, having previously worked as a potter and a schoolmaster. As an adolescent, Arnold, the eldest of the Bennetts six children, worked in his father's office. Bennett would later use the knowledge he gained from this apprenticeship to create vivid portraits of solicitors in works like Whom God Hath Joined (1906), a novel which traces two divorce cases through the courts. The fixation on parent-child relationships in Bennett's work, and on the tyranny of overbearing fathers in particular, has been frequently noted. So too has the concern with – and genuine feeling for – the mundane details of everyday life, which characterizes Bennett's particular strain of realism, and clearly differentiates him from his high modernist contemporaries and successors.

At the age of 21, Bennett moved to London and began work as a solicitor's clerk. In 1893 he took an editorial position at the literary magazine Woman. He would later become editor-in-chief of this publication, leaving only after the publication of his first novel, A Man from the North (1898). This book was largely autobiographical, following a young would-be author as he moves from the Five Towns to London and takes up an office job, struggling for a while to keep up his writing, but eventually abandoning it. While the novel met with only moderate critical success, it was enough to provide Bennett with the means and the confidence to focus full-time on his writing. In 1903, Bennett moved to Paris, where he lived and worked for eight years before returning to England by way of a tour of America, documented in Those United States (1912b). In 1907, he married Mary Marguerite Soulie (b. 1874), a French actress. The couple separated legally in 1921. In 1926, Bennett had a daughter, Virginia Bennett, with Dorothy Chesterton Bennett (1891–1978), who took Bennett's name by deed poll.

Bennett enjoyed widespread popularity along with significant financial success in the early decades of the twentieth century, producing over three dozen novels, along with several volumes of short stories and essays. The Old Wives Tale, generally considered his masterpiece, was published in 1908. This book, inspired by Maupassant's Un vie, chronicles the lives of sisters Constance and Sophia Banes. Constance remains in the Five Towns family home, eventually taking over her parents' tailoring business with the help of her husband Samuel, the store's long-time employee, while Sophia seeks her fate in Paris, first through marriage, then as a hotel-keeper. Bennett was also an accomplished journalist, writing for Academy and other publications, a prolific book reviewer, being especially known for the reviews he produced for the Evening Standard's “Books and People” section, and a playwright, achieving moderate success with works such as Milestones (1912a). In addition, he produced self-help books (How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, 1908a; Literary Taste: How to Form It, 1910b; and several others) and travel books, along with five volumes of letters, three of personal journals, and an autobiography.

His professionalism helped Bennett to achieve the degree of success he did, but also left him open to charges (which he did little to dispel) of being a middle-class “hack” interested only in a paycheck and not in literature per se. This was a misguided charge, but it stuck, particularly after Virginia Woolf attacked the Edwardian writer in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1950 [1924]). Declaring Bennett and his contemporaries John Galsworthy and H. G. Wells to be “materialists” unconcerned with the inner lives of their characters, Woolf created a portrait of Bennett and his writing that was far from the reality. While Bennett was committed to the exterior of his characters and to material conditions in a way that Woolf and her contemporaries were not, it was because he believed in the need to understand outside circumstances in order to understand interiors – and because he believed that interiors were inaccessible to a certain degree (and hence could be understood only through inference and surmise) – that Bennett insisted on understanding not only his characters but their surroundings. Nonetheless, Bennett's popularity took a sharp dive after Woolf's dismissal, and his reputation has yet to recover from the unfortunate blow.

There are promising signs, however. Recently critics such as Kurt Koenigsberger and Randi Saloman have begun to consider Bennett's work on its own merits. John Carey declared Bennett the hero of his study of modernism, Intellectuals and the Masses (1992). Robert Squillace (1997) has produced a provocative monograph offering new insight into Bennett's novels.

SEE ALSO: Edwardian Fiction (BIF)

  • Bennett, A. (1898). A Man from the North. London: John Lane.
  • Bennett, A. (1902a). Anna of the Five Towns. London: Chatto and Windus.
  • Bennett, A. (1902b). Grand Babylon Hotel. London: Chatto and Windus.
  • Bennett, A. (1906). Whom God Hath Joined. London: David Nutts.
  • Bennett, A. (1908a). How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. London: New Age.
  • Bennett, A. (1908b). The Old Wives' Tale. London: Chapman and Hall.
  • Bennett, A. (1910a). Clayhanger. London: Methuen.
  • Bennett, A. (1910b). Literary Taste: How to Form it. New York: George H. Doran.
  • Bennett, A. (1911). Hilda Lessways. London: Methuen.
  • Bennett, A. (1912a). Milestones. New York: George H. Doran.
  • Bennett, A. (1912b). Those United States. London: Martin Secker.
  • Bennett, A. (1916). These Twain. London: Methuen.
  • Bennett, A. (1918). The Pretty Lady. London: Cassell.
  • Bennett, A. (1923). Riceyman Steps. London: Cassell.
  • Bennett, A. (1930). Imperial Palace. London: Cassell.
  • Carey, John., (1992). Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Drabble, M. (1974). Arnold Bennett. New York: Knopf.
  • Hynes, S. (ed.) (1968). The Author's Craft and Other Critical Writings of Arnold Bennett. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Squillace, R. (1997). Modernism, Modernity and Arnold Bennett. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.
  • Woolf, V. (1950). Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown [1924]. In The Captain's Death Bed. New York: Harcourt.
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