Enoch Arnold Bennett was born in Shelton, near Hanley, Staffordshire, on May 27, 1867, the son of Enoch and Sarah Ann Longson Bennett. The eldest of nine children, Bennett descended from a long line of Methodists whom he portrayed in his novels Anna of the Five Towns (1902) and Clayhanger (1910). His father, after working long days as a master potter, draper, and pawnbroker and spending his nights studying the law, qualified as a solicitor at the age of thirty-four, when Arnold was nine. The wealth of precise notation about such occupations in Bennett’s novels seems to stem from his early years. He was also fortunate enough to observe the interaction of different social classes as his family’s status steadily improved under the sway of his father’s autocratic direction (depicted in Clayhanger) and his mother’s pliable consent.
Bennett attended local schools, but his father determined that his son should be a clerk, and thus he had to forgo the opportunity of a college education. Almost immediately, Bennett resolved to get out of this clerkship, chafing at the life of the “Pottery towns,” the filth and provincialism he delineates in The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) and in other novels.
Bennett’s first literary efforts were gossipy notes that appeared in the Staffordshire Sentinel while he was educating himself by reading English, French, and Russian authors. He eventually began a job as a clerk with a firm of lawyers in London, where he escaped forever the towns of his youth.
The sometimes gloomy and temperamental Bennett did not like the law, and to supplement his poor pay he turned to secondhand bookselling, which he put to good use in his evocation of Henry Earlforward in Riceyman Steps (1923). Soon he established a circle of friends, organizing musical evenings in which he would sing without a trace of the stammer he could not otherwise control. Honing his schoolboy French, he began to consort with artists, musicians, and writers and to publish stories in prestigious London literary magazines. He found his first novel, A Man from the North (1898), an agony to write and a commercial failure.
Enoch Bennett’s purchase of shares in a periodical, Woman, provided Arnold...
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