Virginia Woolf admitted to her journal: ‘I haven’t that reality gift.’ Her contemporary Arnold Bennett had it in spades. He was a great novelist, as anyone who has read Riceyman’s Steps or the Clayhanger trilogy would attest. Being also the contemporary of Henry James, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence – you might say this was one of the reasons his reputation became obscured since those glory days of English fiction – he had fierce competition. Woolf’s snobbishness about him (see her lecture on ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’) did not help matters.
It was easy to be snobbish about Bennett, ‘The Man from the North’, to use the title of his first novel. The child of a self-made man, a solicitor from Stoke-on-Trent, he retained his local accent – that is, when an overpowering speech impediment allowed him to get out the words. Ezra Pound immortalised him as the vulgarian ‘Mr Nixon’ – ‘In the cream gilded cabin of his steam yacht’. He had advised Pound: ‘Follow me and take a column,/Even if you have to work free./Butter reviewers. From fifty to three hundred/ I rose in eighteen months.’ Bennett did not work free: Beaverbrook paid him a fortune for his labours – £130 per week, which Patrick Donovan reckons to be £7,800 in today’s money.
In his hugely influential books column in the Evening Standard, Bennett was one of the first critics to see the point of James Joyce. He defended Radclyffe Hall against the ludicrous charge of obscenity for her novel The Well of Loneliness. He rightly saluted the arrival of Ivy Compton Burnett as a genius. He was far from being the middle-brow mocked by Woolf, but he was what all other writers loathe – prodigiously and commercially successful.
This new biography, by one who is himself a successful journalist, is thoroughly fair to Bennett. It was not much fun being married to him; but was it fun being married to Dickens, Tolstoy or Virginia Woolf, come to that? His French girlfriend – for once the raffish word ‘mistress’, even nowadays, seems appropriate – was with him to the end, in that flat over Baker Street station. (He lived in the same block as H.G. Wells.) They called their daughter Virginia – quite a good joke.
I was impressed, when honoured by an invitation to address the Arnold Bennett society in Stoke, by the fact that his French descendants had made the trip to attend. He was a true European, and The Old Wives’ Tale, as well as being one of the best novels in English, almost has a claim to be one of the great French novels of its age, with its unforgettable descriptions of the Siege of Paris. (The other Old Wife is stuck back in Burslem – if you haven’t read it you are really missing a treat.)
There is also much to like in his novel about the Savoy, The Grand Babylon Hotel, and it is good to read in Donovan’s excellent book that Omelette Arnold Bennett is still on the menu at the Savoy Grill. It’s rich for some modern palates, but cheerfully redolent of the Edwardian author of – here’s another title I’d heartily recommend – The Card.
When Alan Bennett was my neighbour, I once asked him if he enjoyed reading his near namesake. He said he had never tried, but he had a cousin of the name who lived in Leeds. A policeman. I have been trying to work out ever since what would be the ideal ingredients for an Omelette Alan Bennett. He would like us to believe it would be spam, whereas I suspect it would be something subtle like fennel and dill – or perhaps a sweet omelette made with Yorkshire rhubarb.