Authors: Arnold Bennett

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist, playwright, and critic

May 27, 1867

Shelton, near Hanley, Staffordshire, England

March 27, 1931

London, England


To become an artist dedicated unselfishly to his art was not the goal that Arnold Bennett established for himself. He was a merchant of words who wrote to earn his living, but he wrote with extraordinary facility and keen observation. That he should have become a writer at all was surprising; that he should be remembered as a notable one is almost as strange. Yet out of a welter of potboilers and hack-work, Bennett’s writing now and again rose to a level that is comparable to that of the best of his Edwardian contemporaries, among them Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy, and H. G. Wells. The Old Wives’ Tale alone supplies reason enough for gratitude that Bennett lived and wrote. {$I[AN]9810000253} {$I[A]Bennett, Arnold} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Bennett, Arnold} {$I[tim]1867;Bennett, Arnold}

Arnold Bennett

(Library of Congress)

Enoch Arnold Bennett was born in the regions known as the Potteries, near Hanley, North Staffordshire, one of his Five Towns. His father was a solicitor who had arrived at that station in life after starting out in pottery manufacture and pawnbroking. Neither his family nor his early schooling was such as to stimulate an interest in letters in young Arnold Bennett. Indeed, his parents intended that he, too, should become a solicitor. After attending Newcastle Middle School, he settled down in his father’s office to study law and serve as a clerk.

After a serious disagreement with his father, who had a reputation as a martinet, Arnold Bennett, at the age of twenty-one, left the Potteries for life in London. There, he initially worked as a solicitor’s clerk and was vaguely interested in reading law, but he soon found other interests. Earlier, he had dabbled in journalism and contributed to a local newspaper; after arriving in London, he found the time to read voraciously. The remark of a friend influenced him to consider writing as a means of livelihood. The decision was made when, about 1893, the Yellow Book accepted a story and Tit Bits awarded him a twenty-guinea prize. With that, his days as a solicitor’s clerk came abruptly to an end.

His first journalistic job was on the staff of Woman, where his duties included writing beauty tips and advising the lovelorn. A period of freelancing followed, during which he wrote anything and everything that seemed salable. A move to Bedfordshire was followed by another, in 1900, to France, where he lived for eight years. By 1903, he was writing half a million words a year, eclipsing in industry even the indefatigable Anthony Trollope, and he had become a popular novelist. Though he was astute in money matters, he was far from being a miser; on the contrary, he enjoyed spending money and acquired something of a reputation as a ladies’ man.

In 1907, he married a French actress, Marguerite Hebrard, with whom he lived until their separation in 1921; two years later, he became interested in another actress, Dorothy Cheston, who later bore his only child, Virginia Bennett. Both Hebrard and Cheston later wrote memoirs of their alliances with the author.

Despite its vitality, Bennett always hated the ugly industrial Midlands from which he had come. Yet the region provided him with his best literary themes, and he became the best historian of the Potteries. Characters such as Constance and Sophia Baines in The Old Wives’ Tales or Anna Tellwright of Anna of the Five Towns are unforgettable, both as individuals and as representatives of the lower middle class who were preoccupied with industry, patriotism, and thrift. Although such novels as Clayhanger and Riceyman Steps have genuine appeal, none of Bennett’s other novels equals his masterpiece, The Old Wives’ Tales, in objective realism, re-creation of place, and skillful evocation of the passage of time. Bennett himself shrewdly observed of the work that it was the very best he could do.

More colorful than most of his own characters, Arnold Bennett lived life to the hilt; he enjoyed the kind of life he had earned for himself with his success. Yet he could set these things calmly aside, as during World War I, when called upon to do propaganda work for the government. He toured the United States in 1911, and he found ease and satisfaction during his life in Paris. At home or abroad, however, the Five Towns never completely relaxed their hold on him, either as a man or as a writer. He died in London in 1931 of typhoid fever.

Author Works Long Fiction: A Man from the North, 1898 Anna of the Five Towns, 1902 The Grand Babylon Hotel, 1902 (pb. in US as T. Racksole and Daughter) The Gates of Wrath, 1903 Leonora, 1903 A Great Man, 1904 Teresa of Watling Street, 1904 Sacred and Profane Love, 1905 (pb. in US as The Book of Carlotta) Hugo, 1906 Whom God Hath Joined, 1906 The Sinews of War, 1906 (with Eden Phillpotts; pb. in US as Doubloons) The Ghost, 1907 The City of Pleasure, 1907 The Statue, 1908 (with Phillpotts) Buried Alive, 1908 The Old Wives’ Tale, 1908 The Glimpse, 1909 Helen with the High Hand, 1910 Clayhanger, 1910 The Card, 1911 (pb. in US as Denry the Audacious) Hilda Lessways, 1911 The Regent, 1913 (pb. in US as The Old Adam) The Price of Love, 1914 These Twain, 1915 The Lion’s Share, 1916 The Pretty Lady, 1918 The Roll-Call, 1918 Lilian, 1922 Mr. Prohack, 1922 Riceyman Steps, 1923 Elsie and the Child, 1924 Lord Raingo, 1926 The Strange Vanguard, 1928 (pb. in US as The Vanguard in 1927) Accident, 1928 Piccadilly, 1929 Imperial Palace, 1930 Venus Rising from the Sea, 1931 Short Fiction: The Loot of Cities, 1905 Tales of the Five Towns, 1905 The Grim Smile of the Five Towns, 1907 The Matador of the Five Towns, 1912 The Woman Who Stole Everything, 1927 Selected Tales, 1928 The Night Visitor, 1931 Drama: Polite Farces, pb. 1899 Cupid and Commonsense, pr. 1908 What the Public Wants, pr., pb. 1909 The Honeymoon: A Comedy in Three Acts, pr., pb. 1911 Milestones: A Play in Three Acts, pr., pb. 1912 (with Edward Knoblock) The Great Adventure: A Play of Fantasia in Four Sets, pr. 1912 The Title, pr., pb. 1918 Judith, pr., pb. 1919 Sacred and Profane Love, pr., pb. 1919 Body and Soul, pr., pb. 1922 The Love Match, pr., pb. 1922 Don Juan, pb. 1923 London Life, pr., pb. 1924 (with Knoblock) Flora, pr. 1927 Mr. Prohack, pr., pb. 1927 (with Knoblock) The Return Journey, pr., pb. 1928 Nonfiction: Journalism for Women, 1898 Fame and Fiction, 1901 The Truth About an Author, 1903 How to Become an Author, 1903 Things That Interested Me, 1906 Things Which Have Interested Me, 1907, 1908 Books and Persons: Being Comments on a Past Epoch, 1908-1911 Literary Taste, 1909 Those United States, 1912 (pb. in US as Your United States) Paris Nights, 1913 From the Log of the Velsa, 1914 The Author’s Craft, 1914 Over There, 1915 Things That Have Interested Me, 1921, 1923, 1926 Selected Essays, 1926 Mediterranean Scenes, 1928 The Savour of Life, 1928 The Journals of Arnold Bennett, 1929, 1930, 1932-1933 Bibliography Anderson, Linda R. Bennett, Wells, and Conrad: Narrative in Transition. St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Explores the work of Bennett, H. G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad, all of whom began to write in the 1890’s. Describes how these authors were forced to respond to a major redefinition in the concept of the novel during that period. Batchelor, John. The Edwardian Novelists. St. Martin’s Press, 1982. After quoting Virginia Woolf’s reservations about Bennett’s fiction, Batchelor compares the two novelists, especially in terms of their treatment of women as being socially conditioned. Discusses Clayhanger, A Man from the North, Anna of the Five Towns, and The Old Wives’ Tale as well as Bennett’s acclaimed short story “The Death of Simon Fuge.” Broomfield, Olga R. R. Arnold Bennett. Twayne, 1984. Offers thorough criticism and interpretation of Bennett’s work. Includes bibliography and index. Drabble, Margaret. Arnold Bennett: A Biography. 1974. Reprint. G. K. Hall, 1986. Drabble, a respected British novelist in her own right, draws from Bennett’s journals and letters to focus on his background, childhood, and environment, all of which she ties to his literary works. Includes profuse illustrations, an excellent index, and a bibliography of Bennett’s work. Kestner, Joseph A. The Edwardian Detective, 1901-1915. Ashgate, 2000. Study of the brief but distinctive Edwardian period in detective fiction. Discusses Bennett’s detective fiction and relates it to the author’s fiction in general, as well as to the detective stories of his fellow Edwardians. Koenigsberger, Kurt. The Novel and the Menagerie: Totality, Englishness, and Empire. Ohio State UP, 2007. Imaginative literary study traces the relationships of zoos and other animal collections to the narratives in domestic English novels, including those of Bennett, which are discussed in a chapter titled “Elephants in the Labyrinth of Empire: Arnold Bennett, Modernism, and the Menagerie.” Maintains that writers have drawn on menageries as means of representing the dominance of the British Empire in the daily life of England. Lucas, John. Arnold Bennett: A Study of His Fiction. Methuen, 1974. After a brief review of criticism of Bennett’s works, Lucas examines the author’s fiction, devoting lengthy treatments to his major novels, addressing them in terms of character and plot. Ardently defends Bennett’s realism, which Lucas regards as equal to that of D. H. Lawrence. Includes copious quotations from Bennett’s work. McDonald, Peter D. British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice, 1880-1914. Cambridge UP, 1997. Examines the early careers of Arnold Bennett and other writers who published from 1880 to 1914 to trace the transformation of British literary culture. Owen, Meirion. “The Resonance of Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.” Notes and Queries 54, no. 2 (June, 2007): 160-63. Charts the similarities between the novels by Bennett and Virginia Woolf, demonstrating how images of women painters and mutilated mackerel appear in both books and discussing how the two authors influenced each other. Roby, Kinley. A Writer at War: Arnold Bennett, 1914-1918. Louisiana State UP, 1972. Although primarily biographical, this book also offers valuable insights into Bennett’s work during and after World War I. Defends Bennett’s post-1914 work, contending that it was influenced by Bennett’s exhaustion of his Five Towns material, by his steadily deteriorating relationship with his wife, and by the war itself. Includes an excellent index. Squillace, Robert. “Arnold Bennett’s Other Selves.” Marketing the Author: Authorial Personae, Narrative Selves, and Self-Fashioning, 1880-1930, edited by Marysa Demoor, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Discusses the different personae assumed by Bennett to market his various works. Useful for understanding the relationship between Bennett’s detective fiction and his other work. Squillace, Robert. Modernism, Modernity, and Arnold Bennett. Bucknell UP, 1997. Argues that Bennett saw more clearly than his novelist contemporaries the emergence of the modern era, which transformed a male-dominated society to one open to all people regardless of class or gender. Very detailed notes and a bibliography acknowledge the work of the best scholars. Wright, Walter F. Arnold Bennett: Romantic Realist. U of Nebraska P, 1971. Sees Bennett as vacillating between the two extremes of Romanticism and realism and describes his novels as mildly experimental.

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