Archive for the ‘Arnold Bennett’ Category

Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett ~ 1902. This edition: Penguin, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-018015-X. 236 pages.

Nothing else was possible. She who had never failed in duty did not fail then. She who had always submitted and bowed the head, submitted and bowed the head then. She had sucked in with her mother’s milk the profound truth that a woman’s life is always a renunciation, greater or less. Hers by chance was greater.

Anna Tellwright, repressed and reclusive elder daughter of a stern and quietly wealthy Methodist elder who has invested wisely and well in various concerns in the china-making Staffordshire Potteries region of Stoke-on-Trent (commonly known as the Six Towns region; Bennett reduced these to Five Towns in the interests of titular appeal), has just turned twenty-one.

With that milestone passed, things start to happen for Anna all in a swoop.

She is informed by her father that she has just come into the fortune left by her deceased mother, which by his efforts has multiplied stupendously.

She acquires a courter, one Henry Mynors, an up and coming businessman who is attracted to Anna for her virginal purity, her moral worth, her modest but genuine beauty, and her undoubted skill at housewifery. (There is a telling passage in which Henry fulsomely admires Anna’s spotless kitchen and loudly congratulates himself on his upcoming acquisition of such a thrifty and cleanly wife.) The prospect of a handsome dowry adds to Anna’s appeal, though to give Henry credit he isn’t absolutely focussed on that aspect; it’s just a lovely bonus, as it were.

She is confronted by the demands of her religion to make a public avowal of salvation, which she finds impossible to carry through with, being of a deeply private and almost morbidly shy disposition. (Religion – in particular Methodism – plays a large role in this novel.)

She in invited to partake of a holiday trip to the Isle of Man, and leaves her hometown for the very first time in her life. Anna proves herself equal to the demand put upon her to enter into society and to dabble in “normal” life, something up until now beyond her modest comprehension.

She finds the courage to defy her father in redeeming an embezzler who has been driven to that crime by his harsh orders.

She receives and accepts an exceedingly suitable offer of marriage, and shortly thereafter realizes her love for another deeply unsuitable man, who she renounces without a qualm, having already given her word to the prior suitor.

All of this takes place while the rattle, crash and mechanical hum of the Potteries goes on day and night, and the inhabitants of that vast industrial complex scuttle about their various businesses, and the miser broods and berates, and his meek daughters – Anna and small half-sister Agnes – inch their ways towards the modified freedoms of their futures…

Inspired by Balzac’s similarly themed 1833 novel, EugĂ©nie Grandet, Arnold Bennett produces an ambitious and occasionally melodramatic portrait of the people and places he knew very well indeed, being himself a child of the Potteries until his departure for London as a young man and his subsequent establishment as an author.

Bennet described this novel as his “sermon against parental tyranny”, and it is all of that. Though Anna renounces the elusive call of “true love”, she does advance towards an essential form of self-development beyond the restrictions imposed upon her by her emotionally brutal father; we have even higher hopes for her younger sister Agnes, who may just accompany Anna out from under the sternly repressive paternal influence.

The detail in Anna and the Five Towns is rich and engrossing. Its passages are heavy with description, and the thing is loaded with deeper meanings. It serves as a multi-layered depiction of a particular time, place and mindset equal to anything Bennett’s compatriot Thomas Hardy produced.

Perhaps not to everyone’s taste – it is an undoubedtly “dated” sort of novel – but I found a lot to appreciate in this accomplished production of its time.

My rating: 8/10

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