Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett (1910)

It was high time we had some Arnold Bennett on this blog, and here it is:

Review by a Reading Group member

‘Clayhanger’ is historical fiction. In reproducing a particular period of time Bennett details the landscape, architecture, home interiors, meals, clothes, manners, facial and vocal expressions relating to ordinary life in the Potteries. Against a background of the prevailing social, political and cultural movements, this solid sense of place becomes the setting for a portrayal of the constraints and adventures of a young person developing an understanding of himself and life. Following a realist tradition and written in plain prose, clearly for a ‘lay’ or ‘middle-brow’ readership, Bennett produces a humane representation of characters and their way of life. Thus, at the very least, this novel will last as a means of allowing future generations access to the values of ordinary people at that time and in that place.

The book is also about survival, particularly in the context of a father and son who find it difficult to see the point of view of the other. Darius, a self-made man, is secretly proud of his son’s development, seen in terms of a contrast with his own background of leaving school at 7 years of age to work 15 hour days, narrowly escaping incarceration in a workhouse in the process. Darius’ desire is orientated around the maintaining and reinforcing of his rise from such humble origins and this involves Edwin joining the family business, a conventional expectation at the time. However, the unrelenting singularity of this drive is such that he has become a domineering tyrant with whom few will argue. Edwin, on the other hand, though youthfully eager for life and impressionable, is by nature a timid person. Whilst hazily appreciative of his father’s achievements and support, he remains almost pathologically tense, nervous and inarticulate in the presence of Darius. This failure of Edwin’s will in the face of his father’s collapses the formulation of any desire contrary to working in the printshop. However, a meeting with Orgreaves, an architect, brings with it a new language and consequently a space in which to represent himself. This fans an aspiration towards such a career. Though it takes a letter to his father just to initiate such a discussion Edwin’s desire in this matter is ruthlessly overruled.

Seven years of printshop routine progressively fades Edwin’s post-school euphoria and establishes his identity in a grey diffuse business world. This is a ramification not only of working closely with Darius but also the conduct imposed on him by five towns life and a school of thought which elevated social status and intellectual snobbery as goals. Thus a charismatic youth becomes increasingly frustrated in self-expression, paralytically self conscious and anxious over how others perceive him. Finding a twilight refuge in the world of narcissism and fantasy he risks ceasing to exist. What he needs, and perhaps dimly perceives, is a loosening of the bonds of self-consciousness and routine through an escape into non-rational passionate states of being. Hence his attraction to Hilda Lessways rather than the beautiful representation of Victorian probity in the form of Janet Orgreaves. Hilda is exotic, passionate, instinctive and emotionally alive, a counter-text to Edwin’s insular life. She offers the ‘distant music’ whereby to heal his ‘divided self’. Thus the book is sociologically as well as psychologically sensitive to issues of survival.

Whilst I enjoyed the novel, finding some parts quite moving, e.g. Darius’ decline and death, I found the massive detail tended to restrict the amount of time I could spend reading it. In other words, the omniscient narrator occupied all the space, leaving little room in which to ‘move’, c.f. Edwin’s prescribed existence. Indeed whilst Edwin’s identity suits being written in the ‘realist’ mode – the clear cut business of literature – Hilda’s otherness is not so accessible, save in terms of silence, atmosphere and direct action. Thus I read the book in stages, probably in the manner in which it was written. It may well have been Bennett’s intention to produce a literary soap opera. On the other hand, a comparison with James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ [written 1904-06] highlights the risks of what may at times border on excessive detail. Each writer seeks to recreate in plain prose their home background in specific eras and both portray what they might have become had they stayed in their home towns. However, Joyce does this with an economy of detail and, in my view, says so much more than Little Chandler’s fading dream to be a poet in ‘A little Cloud’. Nevertheless I found ‘Clayhanger’ to be an ‘honest endeavour’ and a pleasurable experience.

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3 thoughts on “Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett (1910)

  1. I like the phrase “literary soap opera” – and I always think of Clayhanger like this, probably because it was on TV when I was young! Nice review – thanks!

  2. I tried “The Old Wives’ Tale” and could not make it through. This novel sounds a bit more interesting though I do get frustrated when the narrator gets in the way of the story. I had this struggle with “Les Miserables” which I did love overall but got a little tired of Hugo inserted himself.

  3. There is a problem with a writer such as Bennett of “yes…but.” We can see what makes him great and yet have to struggle with those chunky authorial interpolations. The comparison with Joyce is very apt. Apropos of Joyce, his brother Stanislaus would have preferred that he had developed the literary talents he showed in The Dubliners, rather than, what he saw, as the increasingly self-indulgent tone of Ulysses and the full blow self-indulgence of Finnegans Wake. He was in with a bad crowd, is what he might have said of his brother. Having said all that, I was quite carried away by The Old Wives Tale.

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