Clayhanger – Arnold Bennett
Ah, Arnold Bennett. He’s an author who has long been out of fashion, principally because he has been considered by other literati such as Virginia Woolf as old-fashioned, someone who looks back rather than forward. Perhaps the real reason is that his books do not concentrate on the idle rich and the aristocracy but concern themselves with the grim reality of working class life in the late nineteenth century. And no one wants to read about that, do they?
Well, these days we do and Bennett has begun to be rehabilitated and recognised as the author he was. What I have read of his stuff I have read, I have enjoyed and I was sufficiently emboldened to try Clayhanger, published in 1910, and considered to be the first of his Clayhanger trilogy. Trilogies again. I seem to be bedevilled by them. And rather enjoyable it was too, showcasing Bennett’s powerful story-telling and descriptive qualities.
Although the story focuses on Edwin Clayhanger, I found the most powerful bits of the book concerned his father, Darius. First of all, the brutal upbringing that Darius had in a child, in the poor house and working in primitive conditions for a pittance. Ashamed of his upbringing and unwilling or unable to reveal his origins to his family, nonetheless his childhood experiences frame Darius’ single-minded focus to succeed in his chosen business, printing with a fancy steam press, to ensure that as a family they stay above the bread line and why he imposes his iron will on those around him. Darius’ tragedy, and Edwin’s for that matter, is that his reluctance to open up about his childhood alienates him from those he loves and Edwin never really understands him.
The other powerful section of the book is Darius’ physical and mental decline. He is forced to rely upon his family, who because they never really understood him, do their duty by him but little more. It is hard not to feel sorry for the Clayhanger patriarch.
Like all young men at the time, Edwin has ideas above his station and wants, for reasons little more than he likes drawing, to become an architect. Foolishly, perhaps, he tells his father whose ambitions for him are to learn and take over the family business. Edwin’s ambitions are thwarted and he is enslaved to the printing business with little money of his own and always in the shadows of his father.
He also falls in love, falling for the charms of a mysterious woman, Hilda Lessways, an occasional visitor to the Clayhangers’ neighbours, the Orgreaves. She is rather underdeveloped as a character in this book, perhaps we will learn more in the second book of the trilogy, Hilda Lessways, but on a rare jaunt out of the Potteries to Brighton, Edwin discovers that Hilda is already married. The sense of Edwin’s entrapment, both socially, at work and in love, is a key theme of this book.
There are lighter moments. I enjoyed the description of Darius’ overarching ambition leading him to buying a new printing press which sorely tested the strength and quality of the flooring in the print room. Edwin’s presence of mind saves the day, something that convinces his father that there is something there he can mould into his image. The lad may be good enough to take over from him in time.
This book, like all of Bennett’s I have read, is firmly set in the Potteries and in his fictional take of the Five Towns. As someone who has wandered around Burslem, there are features of his description of Bursley I recognise today.
It is a good read and a book that explores the diurnal existence, the hopes and pain, of those aspiring to better themselves. It is a book anchored in reality and I can understand why that got the other-worldly Bloomsbury set’s goat. And no bad thing for that!