Arnold Bennett

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Arnold Bennett was born Enoch Arnold Bennett in the Potteries, a section of England that was to provide many of the scenes for his writing. He worked at a variety of jobs and eventually became editor in the 1890’s of Woman, a magazine produced for middle-class English women. He began to write reviews and short stories both for this journal and other, similar publications. Eventually, his success led to a novel and a full-time writing career. He formed a close relationship with James B. Pinker, one of the most significant early literary agents. From 1900 until his death, Bennett was one of the leading figures in the English literary world and, along with H. G. Wells and John Galsworthy, can be considered to be a founder of the Edwardian school of realistic fiction. His novels of the Five Towns area in England—including Anna of the Five Towns (1902), The Grim Smile of the Five Towns (1907), The Old Wives’ Tale (1908), Clayhanger (1910), Hilda Lessways (1911), and These Twain (1915)—are especially noteworthy. Many of his other novels, in particular The Grand Babylon Hotel (1902) and Riceyman Steps (1923), are still widely read. During World War I, Bennett wrote on wartime life and worked as a publicist for the English government.

Bennett was married to a French poet, Marguerite Soulié. Later, the couple separated, and Bennett was married to Dorothy Cheston. This union resulted in one daughter, Virginia. Bennett traveled widely throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, often using his yacht for lengthy excursions. In addition, he lived for long periods of time in Paris. Wherever he went, he observed carefully, noting his observations in his journal. He used this material, especially the more mundane aspects, in his work. Bennett suffered from a severe stammer, and many believe that this disability aided his writing—only through writing could he communicate in a straightforward, efficient manner.

Bennett was a successful playwright, and his work appeared on London West End stages for more than twenty years. His friendships with other writers such as Eden Phillpotts, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy were instrumental in helping him write fiction; this group fought very strongly against censorship and insisted on describing life as it really happened. Bennett was the epitome of the professional writer, working each day to schedule, meeting his deadlines with ease, offering his help and commentary to other writers, and even providing funds for those whom he thought needed his assistance. (Among the latter were D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce.) Bennett’s use of detective story conventions was simply an example of his professionalism, as he believed that good, careful, competent writers should make use of whatever methods and techniques moved their stories along. Bennett continued to write until the end of his life. He died of typhoid fever early in 1931.


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Enoch Arnold Bennett was born on May 27, 1867, in Shelton, Staffordshire County, England, near the six towns that constitute the Potteries region in central England, the scene of much of Bennett’s early work. His father, Enoch Bennett, was successively a potter, a draper, a pawnbroker, and, eventually, through hard work and study, a solicitor. Bennett attended the local schools, where he passed the examination for Cambridge University. He did not attend college, however, because his autocratic father kept him at home as clerk in the solicitor’s office.

As a means of escape from the grime and provincialism of the Potteries district, Bennett began writing for the Staffordshire Sentinel and studying shorthand. The latter skill enabled him to become a clerk with a London law firm in 1888. In London, he set about seriously to learn to write....

(This entire section contains 1045 words.)

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He moved to Chelsea in 1891 to live with the Frederick Marriott family, in whose household he was introduced to the larger world of the arts. His first work published in London was a prizewinning parody for a competition inTit-Bits in 1893; this work was followed by a short story in The Yellow Book and, in 1898, his first novel, A Man from the North. He became the assistant editor and later the editor of the magazine Woman, writing reviews pseudonymously as “Barbara,” a gossip and advice column as “Marjorie,” and short stories as “Sal Volatile.” It is generally thought that this experience provided Bennett with good background for female characterization.

As he became better known as a journalist, Bennett began writing reviews for The Academy and giving private lessons in journalism. In 1900, his journalistic income allowed him to establish a home at Trinity Hall Farm, Hockliffe, in Bedfordshire. He brought his family to Hockliffe after his father had been disabled by softening of the brain, the condition that eventually killed him. Bennett wrote prodigiously there, producing not only his admired Anna of the Five Towns but also popular potboilers and journalism, including the anonymous “Savoir-Faire Papers” and “Novelist’s Log-Book” series for T. P.’s Weekly. This production financed some long-desired travel and a move to Paris in 1903.

Bennett lived in France for eight years, some of the busiest and happiest of his life. Shortly after his arrival, he observed a fat, fussy woman who inspired the thought that “she has been young and slim once,” a thought that lingered in his mind for five years and inspired his masterwork, The Old Wives’ Tale. Meanwhile, he continued writing for newspapers and magazines, including the first of his series “Books and Persons,” written under the nom de plume “Jacob Tonson” for The New Age. Between 1903 and 1907 he also wrote ten novels. In 1907, he married Marguerite Soulié, an aspiring actor who had worked as his part-time secretary. From the beginning of the marriage, it was evident that the two were incompatible, but Marguerite did provide him with an atmosphere conducive to his undertaking the novel that had germinated for so long and that he felt beforehand would be a masterpiece. He determined that The Old Wives’ Tale should “do one better than” Guy de Maupassant’s Une Vie (1883; A Woman’s Life, 1888), and his careful crafting of the book was recognized by critics, who immediately acclaimed it as a modern classic.

Before Bennett moved back to England in 1913, he wrote six more novels, three of which are among his best: Clayhanger, The Card, and Hilda Lessways. In 1911, he traveled in the United States, where his books were selling well and were highly respected. After that tour, he moved to the country estate Comarques at Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex, where he had access to the harbor for a yacht, his means of gaining what relaxation he could. The yacht was important to Bennett because he had suffered since youth from a variety of ailments, mostly resulting from his high-strung temperament. He had a serious stammer or speech paralysis, which exhausted him in speaking; he also had compulsive personal habits and suffered from a liver ailment and chronic enteritis, which restricted his diet and caused great discomfort when he ate incautiously. As he grew older, he suffered increasingly from excruciating neuralgia, headaches, and insomnia, almost without relief near the end of his life.

Except for the yacht, his recreation was to write; he probably wrote his light works as a relief from the tension of the serious novels, yet he demanded good style from himself even for them. His craftsmanship was conscious and intense, and his drive to produce great quantity while still maintaining quality undoubtedly sapped his strength, both physically and psychologically, and contributed to his death at the age of sixty-three. Bennett’s physical maladies were probably exacerbated by World War I and the collapse of his marriage. Although he continued his usual pace of writing during the war—five more novels in the period 1914 through 1919—much of his energy was spent in patriotic activities, ranging from entertaining soldiers to frontline journalism. From May 9, 1918, until the end of the war, he served as volunteer director of British propaganda in France. He refused knighthood for his services.

After the war, he tried to restore his depleted finances by writing plays, which had been more remunerative than novels, but the later ones were unsuccessful. In 1921, he and his wife separated. He gave her a settlement so generous that for the rest of his life he was under pressure to publish and sell his writing. Contemporary critics believed that these years of low-novel production marked the end of his creativity. Bennett surprised his critics, however, with Riceyman Steps, which was critically acclaimed and was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. This was followed by Lord Raingo and Imperial Palace as well as by six less distinguished novels and one unfinished at his death. Bennett’s creative resurgence may have resulted in part from his relationship with Dorothy Cheston, who bore his only child, Virginia, in 1926. His journalistic career had never waned, and in the 1920’s he continued his “Books and Persons” series in the Evening Standard, with a prestige that influenced the reading public and allowed him to promote the careers of many young authors. Bennett’s health was steadily deteriorating, however, and in March, 1931, he died in his Chiltern Court flat from typhoid fever.