Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1129

Anna of the Five Towns, Arnold Bennett’s second novel, was the first that established the identity of the Five Towns, that area of the West Midlands devoted to the pottery industry and usually known as the Potteries. This was where Bennett had been brought up and where he entered his father’s law business until moving to London. The Five Towns, as he called them (there are actually six or seven), served as the setting for many of his subsequent and more famous novels, even though he never returned to live in the area.

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The novel can to some extent be seen as a regional novel, as are Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels and some of George Eliot’s works. Like Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), Anna of the Five Towns has a Midlands setting further defined by the various Methodist communities that flourished there in the mid- and late nineteenth century. Unlike Eliot’s rural novel, however, Anna of the Five Towns can also be classified as an industrial novel. Bennett describes the details of the pottery manufacture knowledgeably, and he contrasts the best and worst practices in the works of Titus Price and Henry Mynors. This contrast echoes the larger contrast between Price’s son, Willie, who works in his father’s ramshackle workshop, and Henry, whose efficiency in everything he does is exemplified in his modern factory.

In its Midlands setting, chapel culture, and industrial descriptions, Anna of the Five Towns also anticipates the novels of D. H. Lawrence. Like Lawrence, Bennett stresses the ugliness of industrialized urbanization, the ruination of the countryside, and the circumscribed, barren lives of many of the working class. Bennett, however, unlike Lawrence, does not attempt poetry in his style but veers toward the documentary. One feels there is some civic pride left in Bennett, just as civic pride continued among the inhabitants of the Potteries later in the century. More important, Bennett does not point toward a counterculture; spiritual life, insofar as it is still possible, is to be found in traditional interior modes of Christian self-examination as defined by the practices and traditions of Methodist spirituality.

In some ways, therefore, Anna of the Five Towns could also be called a religious novel: not in the traditional sense of the Victorian religious novel, but as a result of Bennett’s taking the religious practices, beliefs, and spirituality of his characters seriously and analyzing them in a sympathetic way. Here again, Bennett is more akin to Eliot than to Hardy or Lawrence. Some critics have suggested that Bennett exposes the confining and even repressive atmosphere of nonconformity, but this is surely a prejudiced reading. Certain characters, among them Titus Price and Ephraim Tellwright, are exposed as hypocrites, yet their failings are portrayed in human terms. They are not the fault of Methodism. Ephraim’s backsliding is part of his self-chosen dessication of spirit. He is based, if anything, on Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1833).

The faith of other characters, however, is genuine: Mrs. Sutton’s is particularly attractive, but even Henry’s is perfectly genuine. His Christian life may seem too perfect, but this is made to seem so by Bennett to underline Anna’s unease with him and to explain why in fact she fell in love with Willie. His tentativeness and confessed failure awake maternal protectiveness in her, an emotion that had survived the dessication of the Tellwright household.

In fact, Bennett has described very accurately not only the industrial state of the Potteries at the latter end of the nineteenth century, but also the state of nonconformist Protestantism, when the fires of the evangelical spirit were being replaced by duty and good works as an unspoken piety. Anna’s spiritual odyssey mirrors this exactly: Unable to respond to the fervor of the revival meetings, she consciously chooses good works, obedience, and duty, and this she believes includes marriage to Henry, the epitome of the good Christian leader. Anna’s choice is one of powerlessness. In feminist terms, she trades the control of father for that of husband. Although the situation may be sanctioned by religion, Bennett does not see it as having been caused by it. The irony is that neither Anna’s religion nor her money ever becomes a source of empowerment for her. She remains the poor little rich girl.

The literary success of Anna of the Five Towns lies in its being above all a novel of character. It is written from within Anna’s experience and consciousness, and the inner psychological movements of her growth are as delicately described by Bennett as Hardy delineates Tess’s development in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). Anna’s sympathies are those that remain with the reader, which is why her miserly and manipulative father retains some shreds of humanity and never becomes a Dickensian caricature. The scene in which Anna, on her twenty-first birthday, is presented with a list of documents to sign as the induction into her wealth is memorable because of the ambiguities of tone and sympathy with which the author surrounds this rite of passage. Bennett wisely understates the ironies of her shabby dress and yet polite treatment by moneyed society; he is more concerned with Anna’s conscience and its dilemma. She technically owns the ramshackle Price works, and it is she who demands the rent, yet she is almost powerless not to do so, and so feels her guilt. The gesture of tearing up the forged note is poignant, as is, in its futility, the final, unused gift of a bank draft to Willie.

The novel’s ending is, from the point of view of character, an anticlimax. Greater happiness could have been accorded to Anna, but Bennett is always a realist. Although she will have no great sorrows in her future life, she will have to rely on just those few memories of joy, epitomized in the Isle of Man holiday, to feed her spirit. Bennett is the sympathetic novelist of ordinary people, and Anna of the Five Towns a truly democratic novel.

Bennett’s style and structures are economic and prefigure the growing economy of the twentieth century modernist novel, as opposed to the sprawling Victorian one. There is always sufficient detail to describe home, church, town, and factory; a sufficient variety of incidents within Anna’s circumscribed life; and sufficient dialogue to balance the narrative. Everything unnecessary is pared away, however. The plot revolves around Henry’s courtship of Anna, but as this is understated in itself, it allows Bennett a leisurely pace. His economies are not those of the miser but of the good housekeeper. The “slice of life” method of the French realists is the most powerful literary model, and what emerges is a novella.

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