The Lion’s Share (1916) by Arnold Bennett

Book Review by George S: In 1915 Arnold Bennett commented in his journal about The Lion’s Share, which he had just begun to write:

The novel is light and of intent not deeply imagined, but it seems to me to be fairly good and interesting.

He does not say much more about the novel in his journal, except when he notes that the Strand Magazine have objected to the book because it contains suffragette scenes:

They held a meeting of the directors and solemnly decided that the Strand could not print a suffragette serial.

The book tells the story of Audrey, a lively nineteen-year-old who wants to see the world and experience what it has to offer. Her over-protective father wants to keep her at home, but she is an admirably unprincipled young woman; she decides to steal the hundred pounds that he keeps in his safe and to run away and earn her living by working. She is about to do this when her father suddenly dies of a heart attack. Her mother tries to continue controlling her, but dies soon after. Audrey is now a rich woman, who can do anything she chooses to.
Bennett then takes her through a series of adventures. With a wedding ring on her finger and under the assumed name of Mrs Moncrieff she goes to Paris to sample life, first in the bohemian Latin Quarter, and then on the sophisticated and expensive Right Bank. Two men are in love with her: a genius violin-player and an older millionaire who owns a yacht. With her to Paris goes her friend Miss Ingate, fifty years old and a suffragette who has hugely enjoyed several demonstrations, especially one where she had played a barrel organ all the way down Regent Street. She mentions this incident proudly in the first chapter, and it sets the tone for the presentation of the suffragettes in the novel; they are continually associated with rule-breaking and a carnival atmosphere.
In Paris Audrey and Miss Ingate meet with a community of suffragettes. There are Tommy and Nick, an artistic pair of Americans in the Latin Quarter, and the notorious Jane Foley:

“Jane Foley!” he murmured.
She could see that he was aghast. The syllables of that name were notorious throughout Britain. They stood for revolt, damage to property, defiance of law, injured policemen, forcible feeding, and all sorts of phenomena that horrified respectable pillars of society.

There is also the charismatic Rosamund:

The great militant had a surname, but it was rarely used save by police magistrates. Her Christian name alone was more impressive than the myriad cognomens of queens and princesses.

Although it is implied that Rosamund is not one of ‘the family trio whose Christian names were three sweet symphonies’ she seems to be based on Christabel Pankhurst.

Audrey is aware that most of those she meets in Paris (the artists, the musicians, the shopkeepers and hoteliers) are after her money, and that Rosamund is no exception. Rosamund uses all her charm and persuasive power to make Audrey devote herself entirely to the cause – only to be disconcerted when she discovers that Audrey has fallen fast asleep.

Audrey has a sincere belief in the suffragette cause, and engages in direct action, but she does not let herself become a fanatic. What she responds to most is the excitement of it. The most enjoyable scene in the book is when Audrey and Jane Foley, back in England, plot to smash the windows of a political meeting where a cabinet minister is speaking. They do it from a vantage point in the amusement park next door, and as with the barrel organ careering down Regent Street, suffragette action is associated with a carnival atmosphere.

Audrey and Jane escape from the amusement park by dressing as waitresses, and among all the fun and slapstick comedy of the exhilarating adventure there comes the most feminist moment in the novel. An unpleasant customer hails the waitress with a contemptuous ‘Hey there!’

The sharp tone, so sure of obedience, gave Audrey a queer sensation of being in reality a waitress doomed to tolerate the rough bullying of gentlemen urgently desiring alcohol. And the fierce thought that women—especially restaurant waitresses—must and should possess the Vote surged through her mind more powerfully than ever.

Jane Foley would happily be a martyr. She is brilliant at giving policemen the slip, but if caught and prosecuted she would go to prison rather than pay a fine. Audrey declares that she would pay the fine. The case for moderation in political enthusiasm is made by Miss Ingate (who in this as in much else seems to be Bennett’s spokesperson in the novel):

But I don’t want to go to prison. Really, I don’t want to. If me going to prison would bring the Vote a single year nearer, I should say: ‘Let it wait a year.’ If me not going to prison meant no Vote for ever and ever, I should say: ‘Well, struggle on without the Vote.’ I’ve no objection to other people going to prison, if it suits them, but it wouldn’t suit me. I know it wouldn’t.

Thyere is a climactic scene towards the end of the book when Audrey, back in Paris, once again meets the charismatic Rosamund ‘with her grey hair and black attire and her subduing self-complacency’. She exerts all her powerful force of personality to persuade Audrey to give herself entirely to the cause:

The older woman looked down upon her from a superior height. Her eyes were those of an autocrat. It was quite possible to see in them the born leader who had dominated thousands of women and played a drawn game with the British Government itself.

She asks Audrey to give herself utterly to the movement, and Audrey refuses.

“Why not give yourself, then? You are free. I have given myself, my child.”
“Yes,” said Audrey, who resented the appellation of “child.” “But, you see, it’s your hobby.”
“My hobby, Mrs. Moncreiff!” exclaimed Rosamund.
“Certainly, your hobby,” Audrey persisted.
“I have sacrificed everything to it,” said Rosamund.
“Pardon me,” said Audrey. “I don’t think you’ve sacrificed anything to it. You just enjoy bossing other people above everything, and it gives you every chance to boss. And you enjoy plots too, and look at the chances you get for that’. Mind you, I like you for it. I think you’re splendid. Only I don’t want to be a monomaniac, and I won’t be.” Her convictions seemed to have become suddenly clear and absolutely decided.
“Do you mean to infer that I am a monomaniac?” asked Rosamund, raising her eyebrows—but only a little.
“Well,” said Audrey, “as you mentioned frankness—what else would you call yourself but a monomaniac? You only live for one thing—don’t you, now?”

Audrey wants to live for more than one thing. She wants the lion’s share of life. She wants love as well as politics; she marries the genius musician, even though he is a difficult character. She does not turn her back on the movement, and at the end of the novel is preparing herself for more direct action, even though the suffragette movement is losing its carnival atmosphere. As Miss Ingate says: ‘They don’t have processions and things now, and barrel organs are quite out of fashion.’
But this ending is overshadowed by a greater uncertainty. An unpleasant German character comes to the violinist’s concert in Paris and scornfully prophesies that his country’s army will soon be in Paris:

‘All know it in Germany. They know it in Paris! But what can they do? How can they stop us? …Decadent!’

It’s a reminder that this book was written in 1915. The scenes showing the excitements and pleasures of pre-war Paris were written about the time when Bennett was making an official trip to the battlefront, through a France scarred by war, anxious and subdued. The Paris scenes in the book are a memory of a happier, more innocent, time. The suffragette scenes too belong to a time of innocence, before more pressing and serious concerns had made them period pieces.

P.S. Rebecca West liked the book. Her review for the Daily News ends: ‘One greatly admires Mr Bennett for making his small but spirited contribution to the theory of feminism so excellent and rich a story of adventure.’

3 thoughts on “The Lion’s Share (1916) by Arnold Bennett

  1. Excellent review of what sounds like a fascinating book. Not at all the subject matter I would expect from Bennett, but I shall certainly look out for it!

  2. Pingback: Mike Ashley’s ‘Adventures in the Strand’ « Great War Fiction

  3. You seem to have really captured the spirit of the book! Bennett always gave 100% (even if he thought he didn’t) and this shines through in your review.

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