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.