The Purveyor of Popular Fiction

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On 18 November 1903 Arnold Bennett was sitting in a Parisian café and, as usual, looking keenly about him. Nearby sat an ‘inordinately stout’ middle-aged woman, making a tremendous fuss about which table she was offered and juggling a number of untidy parcels. As Bennett wrote in his journal:

Soon all the waitresses were privately laughing at the goings on of the fat woman, who was clearly a crochet, a ‘maniaque’ . . . Her cloak (she displayed on taking it off a simply awful puce flannel dress) and her parcels were continually the object of her attention, and she was always arguing with her waitress. And the whole restaurant secretly made a butt of her. She was repulsive; no one could like her or sympathise with her. But I thought – she has been young and slim once. And I immediately thought of a long 10 or 15 thousand word short story, ‘The History of Two Old Women’. I gave this woman a sister, fat as herself. And the first chapter would be in the restaurant . . . and written rather cruelly. Then I would go back to the infancy of these two, and sketch it all. One should have lived ordinarily, married prosaically, and become a widow. The other should have become a whore and all that . . .

The short story was never written. But the idea simmered away, and five years later, on 30 August, the journal records: ‘Finished The Old Wives’ Tale at 11.30 a.m. today. 200,000 words.’ It was his most popular and successful novel, and perhaps the only one of Bennett’s books commonly remembered and read today. Others should be read, for half a dozen at least are fine; but the work which no one ever reads, and which is perhaps the most interesting of all, is in his journal. He kept it from the age of 30 until his death, and the manuscript contained well over a million words.

Virginia Woolf unkindly called Bennett ‘a tradesman’ – and up to a point one sees what she meant. He did not thrive on the rarefied a

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About the contributor

After forty years working in London Derek Parker moved to Australia with his wife Julia in 2002. Their latest book is Building Sydney’s History. They are now working on a gigantic 12-volume anthology of almost 500 poems, which keeps them safely out of the Australian sun.

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