Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett (1910)

Next some reviews of a very well-known novelist, Arnold Bennett (1867-1931). Probably the most well-known novelist we have read in the 1900-1950 reading group, Bennett was greatly enjoyed by most members of the group. I know Bennett best not for his novels, but for the way he was regarded in the 1920s and 1930s by Virginia Woolf and the critics F. R. and Q. D. Leavis. There’s an excellent blog post about his literary reputation here. And for an intriguing contemporary response to Bennett’s book for the self-improver of the early twentieth century, Literary Taste: How to Form It (1909) see the Literary Taste blog.

Review by Mary P:

Clayhanger is the first novel of a trilogy set in the Potteries. It is written from the point of view of Edwin Clayhanger, the only son of Darius Clayhanger a self-made man who escapes the workhouse through the help of a Sunday School teacher. Edwin does well at school and has ambitions to pursue architecture as a career. His father has other plans, and assumes Edwin will take over the family printing business. Their relationship is based on the father bullying the son, who despite his better judgement submits to his father’s will. There is little communication between them or any attempt to understand the other. Darius keeps Edwin short of money and therefore financially dependent on him, and gives him little opportunity to use his skills in the business.

Edwin’s school friend Charles Orgreave and his family provide a contrast to the emotionally sterile Clayhanger family. Osmond Orgreave is an architect and the designer of the suburban house that the Clayhangers move to when business prospers, and they become neighbours.

Edwin meets a friend of the Orgreave family, Hilda Lessways, and is both attracted to and repelled by her. They declare their love for each other but Hilda leaves for Brighton and Edwin later hears that she has married.

Edwin continues to accept his fate and gradually takes over more of the business as his father develops dementia and eventually dies. Edwin leads the life of a bachelor looked after by his unmarried sister Maggie, and taking his fathers’ place in the local community.

Hilda’s son George comes to stay with the Orgreaves and Edwin befriends him. When he hears that Hilda has fallen on hard times he goes to Brighton where she is running a boarding house. He pays off her debts and does not question her on why she jilted him. She tells him that she is married and that her husband is in prison. George develops influenza whilst staying at the Orgreaves and Hilda comes to help nurse him through his illness. Hilda tells Edwin that her husband has been serving a prison sentence for bigamy, and that George is therefore illegitimate. They again declare their love for each other with Edwin making it clear that he does not expect marriage to be plain sailing.

Clayhanger concentrates on Edwin as its central character and everything is filtered through his eyes. His mother dies when he is a child and the novel concerns itself with his relationship with his overbearing father Darius. Bennett’s description of the family dominated by Darius who can lose his temper at any time and seeks to control his children is reminiscent of Githa Sowerby’s play Rutherford and Son. It seems to reflect Bennett’s own experience of wishing to avoid following in his own father’s footsteps into the law. Bennett writes powerfully about the tension between Darius who has escaped poverty and built up a successful business, and his son who knows nothing of his father’s history and wants a different future for himself away from the constraints of his father. Bennett is able to convey the emotional sterility of their relationship, in contrast to that of the relationships within the Orgreave family.

Bennett’s descriptive powers are at there greatest when he writes of Darius’ loss of power as his health gradually declines and he is dependant on his family to care for him.

The second most important relationship to concern Bennett is that of Edwin and Hilda Lessways. Edwin struggles to communicate his feelings, and lets events take their course rather than asserting himself to make them happen. In this sense Bennett sees Edwin as the prisoner of his upbringing, unable to break away from the emotional coldness of his family, and the constraints of his class.

Bennett writing in 1910 is looking back to Victorian and Edwardian times in the Potteries. His major concern is the Clayhanger family, but he also writes vividly about the life of a pottery town, for example his description of Edwin attending the dinner of the ‘Felons’ the great and the good of Bursley on the eve of his father’s death. He also alludes to the changes that are on the horizon in the wider world, Home Rule in Ireland, and the rise of the Labour Party.

The Bloomsbury set viewed Bennett’s writing as old-fashioned, and it is, in the sense that he is looking backwards and concentrating on descriptive story telling. However he is an excellent storyteller and his powers of description are able to invoke the world of the Potteries in a very vivid way. Perhaps these metropolitan writers were showing their own prejudices against a writer who chooses to use a provincial backdrop and who has to write for a living.

Clayhanger is not a great Condition of England novel, nor a critique of industrialisation or capitalism. However through his family saga approach he is able to show in a clear way the personal consequences of the economic and social conditions of the time. Maggie Clayhanger, the unmarried daughter trapped by economic dependence into caring for her father and then her brother, and Edwin the second generation son carrying all the expectations of his father to continue his legacy.

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5 thoughts on “Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett (1910)

  1. Did anyone read The Card? Although the humour is a bit laboured by today’s standards and the situation old-fashioned, it is I think a good introduction to Arnold Bennett’s world and concerns – the Potteries, society and people moving around it, people making the most of themselves and seizing opportunities (or not), the importance of trade.

  2. Enjoyed your link to the blog about Bennett & Virginia Wolff. Arnold Bennett is probably not so much of an unknown as the blogger seems to think may be the case these days. Those of us who are old enough remember the Clayhanger TV series (about 1976 I think) starring, amongst others, the wonderful Janet Suzmann. I for one started to read Bennett directly as a result of watching this on the BBC & I haven’t stopped.

  3. I guess Woolf was writing from the perspective of a modernist feminist. Doesn’t mean that Bennett is not worth reading, and I’d like to give his work a try one day!

  4. I read this years ago, but hadn’t remembered much about it. I have the second book Hilda Lessways on my kindle but I haven’t read it yet as I wasn’t sure if it would make much sense after such a long time. So thank you for reminding me of the first book in the trilogy.

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