Arnold Bennett World Literature Analysis
Bennett’s highest literary ambition was to become the English Flaubert. Profoundly influenced by Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary (1857; English translation,1886), Bennett set out to record a faithful, intensely accurate, and scrupulously realized account of English provincial life in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Flaubert had shown that the single most important factor in literature was the writer’s imagination, his ability to plumb the milieu and the minds of his characters. Rendering their worlds in meticulous detail, creating the canvas of human nature, would yield a godlike mastery of social reality and individuality and issue into an art that could stand by itself.
Flaubert’s appeal to Bennett is obvious, for here was a man who wanted to transcend his place in the dirty pottery towns of the north of England, who in his early years had to bow to the authority of his strong-willed father. To create his own world for himself and to project that world into literature seemed to him to be the noblest and most exciting goal he could conceive.
The key to Bennett’s success lay in his efforts to amass a densely organized and detailed view of social reality. In his best work he set a geographical boundary to his fiction, the territory of the five towns in Staffordshire—Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, and Longton—that he called in his fiction Turnhill, Bursley, Banbridge, Knype, and Longshaw. Within these environs, Bennett could map and plot and analyze human character and society with virtually exhaustive completeness. Thus in a “Five Towns” novel he could describe in riveting detail the transportation network, the items in the shops, the dress of men and women, the character and quality of their furniture, the local politics, the announcements and gossip in the newspapers, and the seemingly glacial, reluctant emergence of these provincial places into the modern world.
If Bennett found his first novel painful to write, it is not difficult to see why. His novels are stocked with a profusion of data about social mores and material culture that are almost anthropological in their completeness. When Bennett describes the interior of a home, there is no doubt that he has fully imagined these features and must have found the creation of them arduous. The discipline of a mind capable of such extraordinary specificity, however, produced a magnificent storehouse of imagined environments that Bennett could quickly call upon, for he wrote his greatest and one of his longest works, The Old Wives’ Tale, in less than a year.
Although Bennett’s prodigious output varies in quality, even his least accomplished novels, plays, and criticism reflect his incredible inventory of subjects, which he would recycle throughout his long career. Thus The Grand Babylon Hotel initiated his writing about hotels, a characteristic that would appear regularly throughout his fiction. A miser appears in Anna of the Five Towns and then is given definitive treatment in Riceyman Steps. His women tend to split between the homelike and the unruly—Constance and Sophia in The Old Wives’ Tale, Alice Challice and Hilda Lessways in Buried Alive (1908). Knowing Paris almost as well as his Five Towns, he turned to it in The Old Wives’ Tale, The Pretty Lady (1918), and Lilian (1922).
Bennett’s understanding of human nature is founded on the strong material basis of his fiction. His characters’ minds and hearts are as plentifully filled as his houses, shops, and streets. A character’s mind in Bennett’s imagination has as much of a geography as does the locality in which he or she resides. For example, Constance in the The Old Wives’ Tale has a mind like the draper’s shop in which she was reared. She is dull, used to the dirt in the square that invades her household, and positively panicked by her sister Sophia’s proposal that they live abroad. Constance has outfitted her life to suit the narrow confines of her provincial setting and knows that the strength and interest she can muster depends upon her devotion to local values.
The Old Wives’ Tale
First published: 1908
Type of work: Novel
Two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, choose opposite ways of life, accepting and rejecting their provincial roots, and reunite in their difficult, yet happy, last years.
The Old Wives’ Tale is generally considered to be Benett’s masterpiece. It captures both the provincial and cosmopolitan worlds that were the basis of both his life and his fiction. In this work, Bennett attained an exquisite balance between his two homes, England and France, and between his romantic and realistic sides that are mirrored in the lives of his two heroines, Constance and Sophia.
Constance and Sophia are the daughters of a well-known draper in Bursley. Constance finds it no trouble at all to accustom herself to the drab atmosphere of the shop, to obey her mother in every respect, and to wait upon her invalid father....
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