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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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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 air of Bloomsbury: he was Enoch Arnold Bennett, late of Burslem and the Six Towns, Purveyor of Popular Fiction to the General Reader. He knew it, and it satisfied him – as well it might, for at one time he earned more than any other contemporary writer. He took all his work – novels, stories, journalism, plays and the journal – seriously, and the latter contains very little scrappy or careless writing. He used it not only to record his life, but also scenes he would later use and rehearsals of how he would use them. He was incapable of experiencing anything remotely interesting without recording it, sometimes in great detail. He loved opera, for instance, but at Die Meistersinger in 1896 took care to sit at the very top of the house and right at the side, simply to be able to observe what went on off-stage:
Screened by his wooden hood, the prompter’s head appears just above the level of the stage; he follows the score untiringly with his left hand while beating time, giving cuts, gesticulating with his right; he is never for a moment at rest; he seems to know instinctively when an actor will be at fault, and his low clear voice is heard exactly at the second when its help is imperative, and not till then. Compared to the prompter the conductor seems almost insignificant. In the wings a couple of chorus masters, with book in hand, direct and inspire the sheep-like masses of men and women who cluster round the principals. Several other men, one in a straw hat, move mysteriously to and fro in the wings. A fireman and a footman stand guard over the curtain ropes. Right at the back of the stage dim shadows with lamps pass and repass. High up, even higher than the top tier, are men in their shirt sleeves moving amid a multitude of ropes, winches and blocks.
Time and again Bennett sets down detailed notes of scenes which might be of use, sometimes at great length – there are pages describing the ‘back-stage’ workings of the liner that took him to New York, and a similarly detailed description of the workings of a large department store. There is no indication at the time of writing that he had any intention of using them – but they were used in later novels. He was also a great collector of anecdotes – just for the love of them – and of the details of friends’ lives. One, for instance, tells him that
when sober he frequently lost umbrellas, but when drunk never. He made a special point of retaining his umbrella then in his hand; it became his chief concern in life. Once he got badly drunk at Maxim’s. He just had sense enough to take a cab to the rooms of a mistress he had then. She received him and undressed him and put him to bed. But he would not ‘leave go’ of his umbrella during the process. He passed it from hand to hand as she divested him of his coat, waistcoat and shirt. And he took it to bed. And he said: ‘She became very angry with that umbrella.’
Then there was Tissot, the celebrated painter of beautiful women, who had a mistress with whom he had continued relations for a considerable period. He decided to break the liaison, and he wrote one letter to his mistress, giving her the gentlest possible hint that the affair must ultimately come to an end, and another letter to an intimate male friend, saying brutally that he was sick of the thing and wanted to marry. He mixed the letters up, and the mistress received the wrong one. She committed suicide. Tissot was deeply affected, regarding himself as her murderer; it was the ruin of his art. Sometimes Bennett’s anecdotes amount to just a line or two, something he has been told: ‘Madame Posfay was in the courtyard of the palace at the time of the murder of the King and Queen of Serbia, but knew nothing. “What are they throwing bolsters out of the window for?” she asked. It was the bodies.’ Or sometimes just something overheard – as when he went to see Pavlova dance, in 1911 at the Palace Theatre: ‘Pavlova dancing the Dying Swan. Feather falls off her dress. Two silent Englishman. One says, “Moulting”. That is all they say.’ He hated malicious gossip but loved anecdotes, and somehow people loved relating them to him. When he went with Siegfried Sassoon to the opening night of the Savoy Orpheans, ‘the new wonder-band’, the hotel’s publicity man came over to him and pointed to ‘Count G., the finest saxophone player in the world . . . You see that thing under his chair. It’s a bird-cage. There’s a canary in it. He left the bird in New York. It fretted. He cabled for it. It is the only canary that has crossed the Atlantic alone.’ Bennett’s journals were published in 1932–3 in a selection made by his publisher, Sir Norman Flower. According to Hugh Walpole, who had seen the manuscript, Flower was ‘so appalled by much of what he found in the journals that he published only brief extracts, and those the safest’. He did, however, allow Bennett’s descriptions of the variety of Parisian whores, from those at the Moulin Rouge and other similar establishments to those – ‘often very beautiful’ – who strolled in the parks and along the boulevards. Bennett was fascinated by Paris, where he lived both as a bachelor and during his marriage to a Frenchwoman. He was introduced to the demi-monde by Chichi, a chorus girl with whom he spent a great deal of time, learning about the lives of her and her friends, and checking up on the verisimilitude of the sexual excesses described in Zola’s Nana. There is no reason to suppose that he led a personally promiscuous life, but he certainly enjoyed such events as the May 1908 Bal des Quat’z Arts, where ‘there were a large number of women absolutely naked, and many men who wore nothing better than a ceinture of bones which concealed nothing’. When he left at 4 a.m. there was ‘a naked woman standing outside in the street, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by a crowd of about 200 people . . . afterwards a procession of nudities was formed and went down the Champs Elysées’. He was lucky to get that journal entry past Flower. Bennett enjoyed life with such verve that one is surprised he found time for work; but he worked relentlessly – and was extremely selfcritical. On holiday at Vevey in 1909 on the day he finished a novel, he wrote of it: ‘Stodgy, no real distinction of any sort, but well invented, and done up to the knocker, technically, right enough.’ That was The Card, perhaps his most delightfully amusing book. He regarded himself as a complete professional, and had no patience with what he considered his failures – however popular they were with the public. Between 1910 and his death in 1929 he was one of the best-known men in England, seen continually at art galleries (he was an early collector of Impressionist works, when they were still objects of mirth) and the theatre (at least five of his plays were commercially successful), regularly dining with Shaw or H. G. Wells, the Sitwells or J. M. Barrie. He was deeply loved by his friends (the Sitwells called him ‘Uncle Arnold’). At the Savoy, they invented the Omelette Arnold Bennett (smoked haddock, Parmesan and cream) which is still on the menu. He talked to T. S. Eliot about his boring work at the bank, and to Elgar, who said, ‘Ah, you work because it pleases you; we poor men work because we have to.’ Certainly Bennett didn’t need the money – but he just could not stop writing:
I could get into the way of going to my desk as a man goes to whisky, or rather to chloral. Now that I have finished all my odd jobs and have nothing to do but 10,000 words of novel a week and two articles a week, I feel quite lost, and at once begin to think, without effort, of ideas for a new novel. My instinct is to multiply books and articles and plays. I constantly gloat over the number of words I have written in a given period.
Many of them are still read, though many are now obscure and probably permanently out of print. At the end of his life, in an entry in his journal a day or two before he died, he wrote of a book he had just finished: ‘When it is published, half the assessors and appraisers in Britain and America will say: “Why doesn’t he give us another Old Wives’ Tale?” I have written between seventy and eighty books. But also I have only written four: The Old Wives’ Tale, The Card, Clayhanger and Riceyman Steps. All the others are made a reproach to me because they are neither The Old Wives’ Tale, nor The Card, nor Clayhanger, nor Riceyman Steps.’ A few years ago I suggested to a distinguished British publisher a complete edition of the journals, given that so much of interest had apparently been left out of Flower’s three-volume edition. The response was ‘Well, really, who would be interested?’ I would. But there is one major problem: where is the complete manuscript? No one seems to have seen it since Flower made his selection. None of the universities that have Bennett collections have had so much as a sniff of it, apart from a page or two here and there which have somehow survived. Did Flower, outraged by its revelations, destroy it? Even if he did, we should celebrate what we have – half a million or so words of the most extraordinary record of the life of an extraordinary man.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 43 © Derek Parker 2014


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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