Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 989

Arnold Bennett completed Clayhanger, the first novel of the trilogy concerning the life apprenticeship of Edwin Clayhanger, on June 23, 1910, two years after the publication of The Old Wives’ Tale. At the height of his creative powers and his critical reputation, Bennett ventured to write his most nearly autobiographical novel in a format popular with Edwardian readers. Compared to George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man (1888), Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (1903), E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey (1907), and H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay (1908), Clayhanger is a fairly typical bildungsroman, or “education novel.” The representative hero of this genre is an inexperienced, often confused, but generally likable young man who, after learning from a series of valuable adventures, develops a better understanding about himself and about life. Typically, the hero comes to terms with his weaknesses and strengths, discovers a proper vocation for his talents, and begins to understand the meaning and limitations of romantic love.

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Unlike the typical Erziehungsroman hero, whose education is completed at the end of the book, Edwin undergoes an extended apprenticeship from youth to middle age, testing the dreams and values of his young manhood against the often harsher realities of life itself. Indeed, in the novels that follow ClayhangerHilda Lessways and These Twain—Bennett alters some of the conventions familiar to the genre. With a relentlessly deterministic philosophy, he pursues the romantic follies of Edwin and teaches him, at the last, a bitter lesson about his restricted place in the world.

It was a lesson Bennett well understood, for his own early life resembled that of his protagonist. His father, Enoch Bennett, the Darius Clayhanger of the novel, was a Victorian tyrant who demanded absolute respect from his dreamy son, though he usually failed to get it. One theme of the novel that also appears in later twentieth century fiction is that of the quest of a son for his spiritual father. Edwin hates Darius and longs for the old man’s death. However, he saves his father from financial ruin when, with astonishing presence of mind, he secures a cable to hoist a collapsing printing press; when Darius dies of natural causes (a scene as harrowing as any deathbed drama in literature), the son is moved to thoughts not of vengeance but of pity. Other characters and locations in the novel are modeled after real people and places that Bennett knew intimately: Auntie Bourne becomes Auntie Clara Hamps, Absolom Wood becomes Osmond Orgreave, Cobridge becomes Bleakridge, and Waterloo Road becomes Trafalgar Road. Probably many characteristics of Marguerite Soule, Bennett’s French wife, appear in Hilda Lessways. Above all, the trilogy is carefully crafted to simulate reality. Bennet reproduces all the details, trivia, and actual circumstances of life, and the reader has a sense both of place solidly rendered and of time remorselessly passing.

To be sure, time itself is a mysterious force, almost a metaphysical element of fate in the trilogy. Like such other twentieth century writers as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, and T. S. Eliot, Bennett is deeply concerned with both the nature and the effects of time. His characters develop, change, and mature to the slow rhythm of time, and they are ultimately destroyed by it. Whether with tantalizing deliberation (as time plays with old Mr. Shushion, its “obscene victim”) or with sudden brutal finality (as time fells Darius), it is the sole absolute, the single truth around which all life appears to revolve as an illusion.

Counterpoised to time is the rhythm of life. In the wild sensual delight of Florence Simcox, the “clog-dancer” of the Midlands, Edwin first perceives the beauty of woman. At the “Dragon,” where the Burseley Mutual Burial Club holds a “free-and-easy,” he responds to the vital warmth of friendship; and with a single kiss from Hilda, a woman he both fears and loves, he is turned for the first time from a shy, fussy bachelor into a man of passion. For her part, Hilda ignores Edwin until he exclaims, in a moment of compassion and despair, “I’m ashamed of seeing my father lose his temper.” In this moment of spiritual illumination, she begins to fall in love with him, touched by what she believes to be his confession of weakness. Brutalized throughout her life by men such as George Cannon, she senses that Edwin has the strength of his tenderness. Her judgment is flawed, however, because life conditions her to see Edwin not as he is but as she wants him to be. In addition, Edwin can never truly understand the real Hilda, who is not (as he believes) a woman of romantic mystery; yet the illusion of the moment becomes the pattern for life. For Bennett, it is the small moments of life that have the deepest effects on character. Magic is in the rhythm of life and its beauty, but the magic is terribly brief.

The last two novels of the trilogy, considerably less autobiographical than Clayhanger, show a decline in Bennett’s emotional powers but complete his architectonic design. Hilda Lessways is interesting from a technical point of view, because the novel describes Hilda’s life in parallel with Edwin’s. For each lover, the romantic partner is a projection of a dream, not the real person. Edwin and Hilda meet too late in their lives; their habits are formed, and they are incapable of change. Indeed, the very qualities they perceive in each other—willpower and assertiveness—are inimical to their happiness. In These Twain, Bennett details the inevitable results of their mismatch. Hilda becomes a shrew, and Edwin becomes a man very much like his father: intolerant, smug, and materialistic. His decision, at the end of the trilogy, to make the best of a marriage that lost its charm, is a triumph of practicality over romance. To Bennett, life at best is imperfect, but it is best lived without illusion.

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