Review by George Simmers:
The Vanguard is one of Arnold Bennett’s lighter novels, a story of the (mostly good-humoured) rivalry between two very rich men. Septimius Sutherland, a financier visiting Naples, is tricked into boarding a luxury yacht, which then sets sail, effectively kidnapping him. The owner is an even richer man, Lord Furber, who for unclear reasons wants Sutherland to sell him the controlling interest in a fashion house that is part of his large portfolio. Sutherland rather likes Furber, and does not strenuously object to being carried off on the yacht, which is the last word in efficient luxury, but he does not want to sell the fashion house. The battle of wits between the two men is complicated by Harriet Perkins, another passenger, whom both men fall for. She gently ‘vamps’ them both, while working to reconcile Furber with his estranged wife.
Bennett’s journal tells us that he began writing the novel ten days after he had finished Lord Raingo. He was on holiday in Italy at the time, and this novel imagines men even richer than himself, seeing the sights and travelling in a yacht even more splendid than the one that was Bennett’s own pride and joy. The subtitle is ‘A Fantasia’, and the book communicates the pleasure that Bennett himself took in imagining luxury hotels, magnificent yachts and the thrills of financial chicanery.
Lord Furber is a self-made man from the Five Towns. He began as inventor, and now owns a multitude of companies, including newspapers. (I wonder whether there might be something of Bennett’s friend and boss, Lord Beaverbrook, in him.) He likes to have his own way, as does Septimius, a man who likes everything to be perfectly organised. As the novel progresses, Septimius grows to appreciate the unpredictable, while Furber has to cope with not getting his own way.
Harriet Perkins (the book’s most interesting character) leads the two men on, fascinating them while confusing them by being utterly unpredictable. She uses her feminine charm (‘vamping’, as it was called in those days) to play along the two middle-aged men, while actually setting her sights on Furber’s considerably younger secretary. I get the impression that Bennett enjoyed writing her.
But then, I think he probably enjoyed writing the whole novel. It must have been a relief to get into light-hearted larks after the protracted death-scene of Lord Raingo.
One of Bennett’s great themes is money. A very striking scene in this one has the two business rivals in a Monte-Carlo casino. Furber bets that he can lose more money in the evening than Sutherland, the tight-fisted Sutherland wins, and comes out transformed into ‘a Mr Sutherland whom nobody on earth had ever seen before – a Septimius careless, indiscreet and unprecedentedly communicative; a Septimius tasting the full savour of life.’ (300) The wild and carefree letting-go of money has liberated him, and one thinks of his opposite, the pitiable miser Henry Earlforward in Riceyman Steps, who never learns how to willingly part with a sixpence, even on his honeymoon.
This book is not major Arnold Bennett and definitely belongs among the minor works. But it is fun to read, a relaxed look at the foibles of human nature which is consistently entertaining and pleasantly readable.