Last reviewed: June 2018
English novelist, playwright, and critic
May 27, 1867
Shelton, near Hanley, Staffordshire, England
March 27, 1931
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. Arnold Bennett
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.