The Clayhanger Trilogy

by Arnold Bennett
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1147

In 1872, sixteen-year-old Edwin Clayhanger is forced to leave school to help his father in the Clayhanger printing shop. His father disregards Edwin’s request that he be allowed to go to school and study to be an architect. Old Darius Clayhanger is a self-made man who rose from a boyhood in the workhouse to the position of affluence he holds in his Midlands community. Since he is a complete tyrant in the home, no one dares to cross him when he insists that his work be carried on by his only son.

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Several years later, Darius builds a new house in a more affluent part of town. Edwin becomes friendly with the Orgreave family, who live next door. The elder Orgreave is an architect, with whom Edwin spends many hours discussing that profession. Unknown to Edwin, the oldest Orgreave daughter, Janet, falls in love with him. It is at the Orgreave home that Edwin meets Hilda Lessways, an orphan living in Brighton with the sister of a former employer, George Cannon, who wishes to marry her. Although she is attracted to Edwin, she returns to Brighton and soon after marries Cannon, giving him her small patrimony to invest for her.

By the time Hilda returns to visit the Orgreaves a year later she has learned about her husband’s previous marriage, which makes her own marriage to him void. On this second visit, she admits to her love for Edwin and promises to marry him, for no one knows of her marriage at Brighton. Discovering that she is to have a baby, however, she returns to Brighton and writes to Janet to tell her she is married and to ask her to inform Edwin. Deeply hurt, he throws himself into his father’s business, for his father becomes mentally ill.

Hilda bears her child and names him George Edwin, after his father and Edwin Clayhanger. She manages a rooming house owned by her husband’s sister. Cannon, discovered by his first wife, is sentenced to serve a two-year prison term for bigamy. After his release, he is again imprisoned for ten years for passing a forged check. The money he imprudently invested for Hilda was lost when a hotel corporation, whose shares he bought, collapsed. Hilda is thereafter no longer financially independent.

After his father’s death, Edwin and his sister Maggie continue to live alone in the Clayhanger house, and the printing business prospers and grows. Both Maggie and Edwin become settled in their habits, although many young women, including Janet, would gladly marry Edwin.

Edwin becomes quite fond of Hilda’s son during the boy’s visit with the Orgreaves. When George Edwin becomes ill with influenza, it is Edwin who sends for the doctor and notifies Hilda. Although neither speaks openly of his or her feelings, Hilda and Edwin feel their affection for each other return when they meet at the sick child’s bedside. Edwin and Hilda met nine years ago. Once the boy recovers, he and his mother go back to Brighton, where Hilda struggles with the failing boardinghouse at Brighton.

Months later, when Edwin goes to see Hilda, he finds her penniless and about to be evicted. Edwin pays her bills, and Hilda tells him all that happened to her, explaining that her marriage was void and her child illegitimate. Edwin returns home but resolves to marry Hilda quietly in London. After marrying, they move into the Clayhanger house and Maggie goes to live with a maiden aunt. Edwin adopts Hilda’s son and gives him the name of Clayhanger.

Edwin, having his own way for a long time, is accustomed to a certain routine in his home and to making his own decisions. Hilda has an equally strong personality, however, and Edwin believes that she is trying to make him conform too much to her own views and habits. Most of all he resents her attempts to influence him in business affairs, a realm he thinks solely his own.

A few months after Edwin and Hilda marry, the aunt with whom Maggie Clayhanger is living becomes seriously ill. During her last days, Mr. Ingpen, Edwin’s business friend, is injured in a factory accident. At Ingpen’s request, Edwin goes to his room to destroy some letters and pictures, so they will not be found if Ingpen dies in the hospital. Edwin finds there a woman sleeping who is Ingpen’s mistress; her husband is incurably insane. Edwin is disturbed for his friend, but Ingpen laughs and says that the situation is best because he does not want to be trapped in a marriage.

When Edwin’s aunt dies, her estate is left to the children of Edwin’s younger sister, Clara. Edwin and Maggie are pleased, but Hilda thinks that she and Edwin should receive part of the estate. Her selfishness irks Edwin. He feels he is rich enough and that his nephews and nieces deserve the money. Nostalgically recalling his bachelor days, he begins to consider that a divorce might be the answer to his situation. The only bright ray in his life seems to be George Edwin, his stepson, who is studying architecture with the aid of John Orgreave. Edwin hopes that his adopted son might have the chance to become an architect.

On a visit to a nearby city, Hilda and Edwin are taken to inspect a prison. There they see Cannon. He is released soon afterward when he is found to be innocent of the forgery charge. When Cannon goes to Edwin without Hilda’s knowledge, Edwin gives him money to go to America. Edwin never expects to see the money again, but he wants to get the man out of the country. He is also bothered by the fact that Hilda is in correspondence with Cannon’s other wife.

The climax of Edwin’s unhappiness with Hilda comes after she takes him to see a house in the country on Christmas Day. She tries to force him to buy it by diplomatic moves and conversations with their friends and family that will leave Edwin appearing foolish if he does not buy the house. After a violent argument, in which he accuses his wife of being grasping, underhanded, and dishonest, Edwin leaves the house in a rage. After a long walk in the cold winter night, he realizes, however, that his marriage and his wife mean much to him. He realizes that he must make concessions and that they both must contend with having married so late in life, when their habits were already fixed. Finally he recalls his friend Ingpen, who is unable to marry the woman he loves. He goes back to the house to reconcile with Hilda. His faith in human nature is completely reestablished when he finds a check from America in the mail for the money he lent to Cannon.

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