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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,129 words.)