Places: The Clayhanger Trilogy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Clayhanger, 1910; Hilda Lessways, 1911; These Twain, 1915

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: 1870-1895

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedClayhangers’ first home

Clayhangers’ Clayhanger Trilogy, Thefirst home. Combination dwelling and business premises in which Edwin Clayhanger spends his formative years. Situated on a busy square in one of Bennett’s Five Towns, the fictional English city of Bursley, “D. Clayhanger, Printer and Stationer” is an integral part of local commercial life. Darius Clayhanger, Edwin’s father, has worked for his living since the age of seven, and as a result has come to believe that one’s identity is a function of one’s occupation; all of his waking life is taken up with the operations of his printing business, which is described with a wealth of detail that suggests Darius himself has been imprinted with the stamp of the powerful presses he oversees.

Although Edwin does go into the family firm, he refuses to permit his decision to define the limits of his ambitions. He turns his bedroom into a sanctuary from the outside world–a place in which objects such as a model sailing ship can be contemplated and used to fuel the imagining of a life free from constraint. Even after he assumes responsibility for much of the shop’s daily operations, he insists on creating a personal “lair” that symbolizes how he conceives of his position in the business: off limits to his employees but able to overhear what they say and do, Edwin preserves a sense of personal identity within the commercial organism that has swallowed the rest of his family.

Clayhangers’ new home

Clayhangers’ new home. Suburban residence to which the family moves when Edward is twenty-four years old. Owning a house that is not a place of business is a step up the social scale for the Clayhangers, and Edwin uses the opportunity provided by this change to create an even more satisfying refuge in his new bedroom. The acquisition of a personal library, which contains many books his family would find incomprehensible or offensive, represents a further step in his efforts to widen the horizons of his existence.

After the death of his father and his marriage to Hilda Lessways in These Twain, Edwin asserts his new sense of independence by renovating the dwelling to suit himself. The installation of a radiator in its downstairs hall symbolizes his rejection of the Victorian cliché that cold houses build firm characters, and the physical as well as emotional warmth of his household is sharply contrasted with the frigid climate of his relatives’ abodes. Edwin also strives to make his home a sanctuary against the demands of the outside world; just as he made his boyhood bedroom a refuge from his family, so does he make his adult residence a haven from the “varnished barbarism” of surrounding society.

Orgreave home

Orgreave home. Residence of a refined middle-class family in which Edwin first meets Hilda Lessways. The Orgreaves’ interests in music and literature open up new worlds of enjoyment for Edwin, and their amply furnished household likewise inspires him with the idea that one need not settle for the bare minimum of necessities in life. When the Orgreave parents die, the children go their separate ways, and Edwin is profoundly saddened by the loss of a place that represented his sense of what a cultured and civilized life should be.

*Brighton

*Brighton. Resort city on the southern English coast. When Edwin travels here in search of Hilda Lessways, he encounters extremes of wealth and poverty that stimulate his budding awareness of social inequality. For Hilda, who has gone to Brighton to manage an ailing friend’s boardinghouse, it is the place where her sexual feelings are awakened by the seductive charms of a ruthless bigamist. As in many other British novels, notably Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938), the narrative’s depictions of pervasive misery and squalor serve as an ironic counterpoint to the city’s reputation as a wonderland of pleasure and delight.

Lessways home

Lessways home. Initial setting of the second part of the trilogy, Hilda Lessways. Here Hilda and her mother lead a comfortable but sterile existence that Hilda experiences as a prisonlike confinement offering material plenty but no deeper satisfaction. This household is portrayed as being obsessed with appearances, devoted to daily rites of cleaning and scrubbing whose gleaming surfaces mask the untidy realities that lie underneath them. Although Hilda comes from a middle-class background and Edwin from a working-class one, they are both driven by the need to create rewarding lives for themselves out of their spiritually and intellectually impoverished origins.

George Cannon’s office

George Cannon’s office. Law firm in which Hilda finds her first job. As is typical of Bennett’s approach to character development, the office is presented as a literal embodiment of its occupant’s personality: well organized and efficient, flawed only by a toppled volume of romantic poetry, whose presence foreshadows future revelations concerning Cannon’s moral failings.

Shawport printing works

Shawport printing works. New suburban location of the Shawports’ growing family business. After the structure has been built, Edwin regrets that he has taken a conservative rather than aggressive view of his economic prospects, and makes a direct connection between the only partial adequacy of the building and the “half-measures” that he sees as characterizing his life as a whole.

*Dartmoor Prison

*Dartmoor Prison. Penitentiary in which Hilda’s bigamous lover, George Cannon, is incarcerated. When Edwin and Hilda visit the prison in company with upper-class relations of the Orgreaves, the contrast between the latters’ blithe disinterest in what they see and Edwin’s horror at the treatment of the inmates is one of the trilogy’s most powerful statements of differences among English social classes.

BibliographyAnderson, Linda R. Bennett, Wells and Conrad: Narrative in Transition. London: Macmillan, 1988. Contains a chapter on the Clayhanger trilogy, which Anderson sees as the last novels in which Bennett managed to investigate his complicated relationship to his past honestly. Focuses on the theme of guilt and selfhood. Select bibliography and index.Drabble, Margaret. Arnold Bennett. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974. The most readable of the biographies on Bennett. Helps relate the complicated nexus that held Bennett to his past. Includes a detailed bibliography and index.Hall, James. Arnold Bennett: Primitivism and Taste. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1959. Contains a chapter on the Clayhanger novels, which Hall sees as the best example of the balance achieved between the two opposing forces of primitivism and taste. Select bibliography.Hepburn, James, ed. Arnold Bennett: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. Includes a number of publication reviews of each of the Clayhanger novels, as well as a general introduction, a select bibliography of critical material from the years 1904 to 1931, and an index.Lucas, John. Arnold Bennett: A Study of His Fiction. London: Methuen, 1974. Probably the best general introduction to Bennett. Includes a reasonably thorough discussion of the Clayhanger trilogy, which Lucas rates highly in Bennett’s oeuvre. Index.
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