Review by Sylvia D:
Whom God Hath Joined is one of Arnold Bennett’s Five Towns novels. It is a powerful read with a strong social message. It is also a novel that could not have been written today.
Lawrence Ridware is a legal clerk in a small solicitor’s practice in Hanbridge (Hanley). He and his wife, after six years of marriage, are hardly on speaking terms. He suspects her of adultery and, with the encouragement of his brother Mark, a London artist, takes the decision to divorce her. Charles Fearns, the owner of the practice where Lawrence works is a respectable married man with seven children but he cannot keep his hands off other women and one night when his wife is away even sleeps in the family bedroom with his children’s French governess. They are spotted by his daughter, Annunciata, who informs her mother. Mrs Fearns, who has suspected for a while that her husband is being regularly unfaithful, sees this as the last straw. Believing that he is no longer “a gentlemen”, she leaves him and resolves to divorce him.
The rest of the novel is concerned with the two divorce cases with detailed descriptions of the divorce court proceedings. It is Bennett’s vehicle to attack the way divorce was treated at the time he wrote the novel in 1906 – the scandal and stigma of being involved in a divorce case with the likelihood of having one’s career ruined, the unpleasantness of having to collect evidence of infidelity, the harshness of the divorce laws with a wife having to prove cruelty, desertion or adultery in the household which was classed as legal cruelty whereas the man only had to prove adultery, and the sordidness of having one’s dirty linen aired in the courts and picked over by the press and public. He uses Lawrence’s brother, who I should imagine he modelled on himself, to suggest that divorce cases should at least be heard in private,
‘In England, what with the sickening curiosity of idlers . . . and what with the newspapers waiting to give names and addresses and everything that’s really tasty, a witness in a divorce case is likely to be frightened out of his life . . . The truth is that justice is sacrificed to the lascivious tastes of the great enlightened British public’ – (p 251).
Lawrence’s case is dismissed on a technicality of jurisdiction but he later succeeds in divorcing his wife in the Scottish courts. Mrs Fearns abandons her case at the last minute when she recognises that she cannot subject her daughter who has broken down in the witness box to any further pain. She forgives her husband but Annunciata who becomes a nurse never sees her father again.
Whom God Hath Joined has a strong sense of place with detailed descriptions of locations in the Five Towns. Bennett pictures the view from a high vantage point as night falls, ‘Bursley Town Hall is lighting its clock- the gold angel over it is no longer visible – and the clock of Hanbridge Old Church answers; far off the blue arc lamps of Knype (Stoke) shunting-yard flicker into being; all round the horizon, and in the deepest valley at Cauldron, the yellow fires of furnaces grow brighter and brighter in the first oncoming of the dusk’ – (p 9). More intimately, Bennett describes Chancery Lane in Hanbridge,
‘On one side of it is the blank dark red wall of an old-fashioned manufactory, and on the other, tightly packed together, are mysterious little houses which once were homes and which are now kennels where lurks that last uncompromising descendant of the Medes and Persians, the “legal mind . . . The front doors, from nine to six, are kept invitingly open, and drab panels lettered in black, or black panels lettered in white, afford dim clues to the mysteries that may be seen within’ (p 49).
However, there were things about the book I didn’t like. Bennett uses his female characters as a vehicle for getting over his message and consequently they are not well developed. Mrs Fearns comes across as what was probably Bennett’s ideal of the good wife and mother; she ‘seemed always to radiate kindliness, her face denied the very existence of evil and transformed the world (40) whist Lawrence’s wife, Phyllis, is depicted throughout as engimatic and cold although other men seem to find her charming. However, the reader never really finds out what she is feeling or thinking.
I also find Bennett’s writing about the Five Towns rather patronising in places and one gets the sense that he is glad he doesn’t have to live there. (He himself abandoned working for his solicitor father at the age of 21 and found a position as a solicitor’s clerk in London instead.) Of the legal quarter in Hanbridge he writes, ‘Situate in the heart of a district inhabited by a population of a quarter of a million which gibes openly at the House of Lords, it preserves with holy and rigorous zeal the sanctity of tradition’ – (p 50) or of the neighbouring town of Oldcastle (Newcastle under Lyme); ‘the prim red market-place of the exalted borough which draws its skirts away from the grimy contact of the Five Towns, and employs its vast leisure in brooding upon an ancient and exciting past’ – (p 157).
There are quite a few literary references in the novel. Bennett isn’t afraid to comment on what he sees as a lack of literary aspiration; in Hanbridge, for instance, the bookseller’s ‘business in literature was almost negligble, the demand for books in the Five Towns being inferior to any other demand whatsoever’ – (p 47). When Lawrence visits Mrs Fearns after she has left her husband and sees a reprint of Alexander Smith’s Dreamthorp (book of essays) on a small table along with a morceau de salon of Chaminade on the piano, the verdict is, ‘Not in Lawrence’s house would such examples of the brilliant second-rate have been found conspicuous and his highly sensitive taste recoiled from them’– (pp 116-117).
Overall Bennett must be admired for being among those writers who felt strongly enough to tackle a difficult subject which most people at the time rarely mentioned.