Celebrating the Centenary of Arnold Bennett's Clayhangerby Martin Laux (chairman of the Arnold Bennett Society)
Edwin Clayhanger stood on the steep-sloping, red-bricked canal bridge, in the valley between Bursley and its suburb Hillport. In that neighbourhood the Knype and Mersey canal formed the western boundary of the industrialism of the Five Towns. To the east rose pitheads, chimneys, and kilns, tier above tier, dim in their own mists. To the west, Hillport Fields, grimed but possessing authentic hedgerows and winding paths, mounted broadly up to the sharp ridge on which stood Hillport Church, a landmark. Beyond the ridge, and partly protected by it from the driving smoke of the Five Towns, lay the fine and ancient Tory borough of Oldcastle, from whose historic Middle School Edwin Clayhanger was now walking home.
These are the opening lines of Arnold Bennett's brilliant novel Clayhanger – published 100 years ago. Clayhanger was the first novel in Bennett's trilogy about life in the Five Towns at the end of the Victorian and start of the Edwardian era. The author, Stoke-on-Trent's most famous literary son, masterfully conveys the atmosphere of the small British town of Bursley through the eyes of his central character, Edwin Clayhanger.
In his detailed description of Edwin's relationships with his family, particularly his father, the tyrannical self-made printer Darius, and his friends the Orgreave family, at whose house Edwin later meets his future wife Hilda Lessways, Bennett skillfully reflects the reality of provincial life.
The second book in the trilogy, Hilda Lessways, was published in 1911. It tells the story of Hilda before her marriage to Edwin and evokes the qualities of everyday life. Bennett explains Hilda's ambition to make a career for herself, her start in the office of an embryo newspaper, her intensifying relationship with the enigmatic and forceful George Cannon who persuades her to take up a guest-house in Brighton, and her increasing fascination with the young Edwin.
These Twain is the final novel in the series and Bennett draws together the threads separately developed in the two earlier novels. Hilda Lessways and Edwin Clayhanger are now married and living in Bursley together with Hilda's son by her 'marriage' to George Cannon. Deep-seated passions and new tensions produce conflicts that continually force them to reassess their relationship. In These Twain Bennett draws a masterfully subtle and compelling portrait of a marriage.
Bennett's posthumous reputation has seen a series of peaks and troughs. His death in 1931 generated renewed interest with a number of his books being reprinted. A further revival during World War II was assisted by the making of the film Holy Matrimony based on Bennett's comic novel Buried Alive and the republication of the novel as an Armed Service Edition designed to fit the pocket of American GIs. The centenary of Bennett's birth was celebrated in 1967 and this marked the start of a peak that lasted through to ATV's landmark televising of the Clayhanger trilogy, a costume drama starring Peter McEnery as Edwin, Janet Suzman as Hilda and Harry Andrews as Edwin's tyrannical father Darius.
In recent times there has been further resurgence in Bennett's popularity with more reprinting of his works. Margaret Drabble, one of Bennett's biographers, is one of his high profile supporters along with A.N. Wilson. The former Labour Party leader Michael Foot was another fan.
Those that have read Bennett cannot but be impressed by the quality of his writing. The Old Wives' Tale and Clayhanger are undeniably masterpieces. Other 'Five Towns' novels like Anna of the Five Towns, Leonora, Whom God Hath Joined and The Price of Love should not be overlooked.
Nor should Bennett's 'Five Towns' short stories Tales of the Five Towns, The Grim Smile of the Five Towns and The Matador of the Five Towns. Riceyman Steps is set in London and ranks with Bennett's best work. Of his so-called 'pot-boilers' - The Grand Babylon Hotel, Buried Alive and The Card - are excellent examples of the genre. Bennett also produced landmark works like The Pretty Lady. This book is believed to be the first novel to be written and published during World War I. Most war novels were written post-war – Mottram's The Spanish Farm Trilogy, Blunden's Undertones of War, Graves' Good-Bye To All That, Morris' Bretherton and Sassoon's Memoirs of An Infantry Officer. The Pretty Lady is also distinguished by the fact it was written about the home front and the effect of war on civilians.
This year Churnet Valley Books also intend to publish 40 of Bennett's previously uncollected short stories that originally appeared newspapers and magazines.
In June 2010, the Arnold Bennett Society is hosting its sixth international conference at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. This year's conference is entitled 'Clayhanger Trilogy' in recognition of the centenary. The Society actively promotes the works of Bennett and further details about Bennett, the conference, the books and the Society can be found at www.arnoldbennettsociety.org.uk