Arnold Bennett was, above all, a professional writer. He wrote numerous novels, plays, short stories, and books of commentary; he also wrote one of the most influential columns on the book world during his lifetime. This column, entitled “Books and Persons,” appeared in The New Age from 1908 to 1911 under the pseudonym Jacob Tonson and under his own name in The London Standard from 1926 to 1931. His criticism and analysis of the detective novel at the end of the 1920’s was significant in shaping the genre. His use of detailed description and his depictions of middle-and lower-class life provide his readers with insight into how others live and think.
In addition to fifteen major novels, Arnold Bennett published thirty-three novels generally considered potboilers by his critics. Some of these Bennett himself regarded as serious works; others he variously called fantasias, frolics, melodramas, or adventures. His total published work exceeds eighty volumes, including eight collections of short stories, sixteen plays, six collections of essays, eight volumes of literary criticism, three volumes of letters, six travelogues, and volumes of autobiography, journals, and reviews, as well as miscellaneous short articles, introductions, pamphlets, “pocket philosophies,” and a few poems. Much of the content of his journals has never been published. In addition, Bennett collaborated in the production of five films and operas, three of which were adapted from his plays and novels. Four of his plays and novels have been adapted for film by other screenwriters, and two of his novels have been adapted for the stage.
Although Arnold Bennett won only one major literary award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Riceyman Steps, his contribution to the history of the novel exceeds that accomplishment. Bennett’s early novels played an important role in the transition from the Victorian to the modern novel. A somewhat younger contemporary of Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad, Bennett helped to displace the “loose, baggy” Victorian novel and to develop the realistic movement in England. With fine detail he portrayed the industrial Five Towns, his fictional version of the six towns of pottery manufacturing in England’s Staffordshire County.
His early career was strongly influenced by the aestheticism in form and language found in works by Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, and Ivan Turgenev, and he admired the naturalism of Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, and Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt. Later, however, he rejected what he called the “crudities andmorsels of available misery” of naturalism and, while retaining an interest in form and beauty, he came to feel that aesthetics alone is an empty literary goal and that the novelist must combine “divine compassion,” believability, and the creation of character with the “artistic shapely presentation of truth” and the discovery of “beauty, which is always hidden.” With these aims in mind, he chose as the subject of his best works that which is beautiful and remarkable...
Anderson, Linda R. Bennett, Wells, and Conrad: Narrative in Transition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Explores the work of Bennett, H. G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad, all of whom began to write in the 1890’s. Describes how these authors were forced to respond to a major redefinition in the concept of the novel during that period.
Batchelor, John. The Edwardian Novelists. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. After quoting Virginia Woolf’s reservations about Bennett’s fiction, Batchelor compares the two novelists, especially in terms of their treatment of women as being socially conditioned. Discusses Clayhanger, A Man from the North, Anna of the Five Towns, and The Old Wives’ Tale as well as Bennett’s acclaimed short story “The Death of Simon Fuge.”
Broomfield, Olga R. R. Arnold Bennett. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Offers thorough criticism and interpretation of Bennett’s work. Includes bibliography and index.
Drabble, Margaret. Arnold Bennett: A Biography. 1974. Reprint. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Drabble, a respected British novelist in her own right, draws from Bennett’s journals and letters to focus on his background, childhood, and environment, all of which she ties to his literary works. Includes profuse illustrations, an excellent index, and a bibliography of Bennett’s work.
Kestner, Joseph A. The Edwardian Detective, 1901-1915. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. Study of the brief but distinctive Edwardian period in detective fiction. Discusses Bennett’s...