IN THE 1920s. Arnold Bennett was a household name. Today. he is not quite forgotten — the Arnold Bennett Society sees to that — but he is little read.
Bennett was the author of 34 novels, including his masterpiece, The Old Wives’ Tale, and several potboilers. He wrote prolifically for the press, for the stage, and, less successfully, for the screen. He published seven volumes of short stories and kept a daily journal, which swelled to a million words. With titles such as How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, he could be said to have created the genre of the self-help book. He made a great deal of money and liked to be seen driving around in his Rolls-Royce. He had come a long way from the grim world of the Potteries, where he was brought up, and which provides the grimy backdrop for much of his fiction. He wrote and wrote, but — so severe was his speech impediment — said little.
Patrick Donovan’s Arnold Bennett: Lost icon is the first full-length biography of Bennett since Margaret Drabble’s, published in 1974. It is pleasing that, nearly half a century later, Drabble herself has warmly commended Donovan’s biography, a work that must now displace her own as the standard account of the novelist’s life (TLS, 13 May).
The passing of the years allows Donovan to appreciate aspects of Bennett’s story which can be understood only from a greater distance, not to speak of the advantage that he has over earlier biographers through access to archives unavailable to them. Earlier studies — so Donovan claims — tended to deal less than fairly with Bennett’s relationship with Marguerite Soulié, his legal wife, to whom Bennett refused to grant a child, and who, after their separation, refused to give him a divorce. Equally fraught was his relationship with his common-law wife, the actress Dorothy Cheston, the mother of his daughter Virginia. Both Soulié and Cheston published tendentious accounts of their time with Bennett; it falls to Donovan to put the record straight.
Then there is the other Virginia — Virginia Woolf, with whom Bennett had a 13-year-long spat, “one of the most celebrated literary feuds of the twentieth century”. Now that the dust of this battle has long settled, it is possible to see what it was all about. Bennett wrote with the studied realism of his heroes Balzac and Zola. He went with the flow of a failing — if still powerful — literary current. Woolf, apostle of modernism, explored depths of the human condition unsounded by Bennett, which, to articulate, required a new language that he never learned.
This fine biography is a fascinating portrait of a figure who does not deserve to be quite as neglected as, it seems, he now is. Donovan insists that his book is “not intended to be a work of literary criticism” — these pages are mercifully free from the fog of “theory” — and that he is writing for “a modern generalist audience”. In a word, he writes for us.
The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.
Arnold Bennett: Lost icon
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