Our Women: Chapters on the Sex Discord by Arnold Bennett

1920s women

You know who needs to comment on the role of women? It’s Arnold Bennett! In 1920! Look, obviously nobody is looking for a man’s opinion from nearly a century ago to help with contemporary debate – but I can’t resist this sort of glimpse back into the past. A bit like the Ursula Bloom book I talked about the other day, albeit a different sphere. And so, yes, my relaxing holiday reading started with Arnold B’s chapters on the sex discord. What, you didn’t see it at the airport in their 3-for-2?

Bennett proudly labels himself a feminist, which was rather a surprise to me (and a welcome surprise). His definition of ‘feminist’ definitely doesn’t match up to any 21st-century definition, but I daresay none of our definitions will find favour with 22nd-century feminists. We’ll leave some of his more controversial opinions for later…

A positive? He is a big fan of women having jobs. Yes, he does more or less think these should work around their domestic duties, but it’s… something? But he does rail against the current state of things, with women expected never to change their role at all, never earning money and yet having vital places to fill in civilised society. True, his vision of the far future is female pilots (IMAGINE), but he is at least thinking that things could be different from how the world is organised in 1920.

The first chapter is ‘The Perils of Writing about Women’, where he acknowledges potential minefields (and, incidentally, his own complete lack of knowledge of Havelock Ellis). ‘Change in Love’ and ‘The Abolition of Slavery’ follow on next, setting the scene for ways the world may change – and that women should be more appreciated for their contribution to that world. I doubt a 2017 author would throw around ‘slavery’ in the flippant way he does, but he’s doing his best.

Where things get super troubling – and thus, at the same time, super interesting from a reading-for-historical-interest angle – is the chapter ‘Are Men Superior to Women?’. Spoilers: Bennett thinks they are.

Some platitudes must now be uttered. The literature of the world can show at least fifty male poets greater than any woman poet. Indeed, the women poets who have reached even second rank are exceedingly few – perhaps not more than half a dozen. With the possible exception of Emily Bronte no woman novelist has yet produced a novel to equal the great novels of men. (One may be enthusiastic for Jane Austen without putting Pride and Prejudice in the same category with Anna Karenina or The Woodlanders.)

Firstly – who on earth would pick The Woodlanders as their ammunition in favour of Thomas Hardy?? Secondly – this is obviously something I don’t agree with, but when he goes on to ‘can anybody name a celebrated woman philosopher’ and so forth, the obvious argument is ‘well, women didn’t get a chance until quite recently’. He tries to rebut this, but pretty unconvincingly… it’s all rather a peculiar position to take, and not very coherently argued, and rather undermines other parts of the book. Still, this all works together to make it an interesting history piece.

At other times, he wrote things that would have been SO useful in my doctoral thesis. It’s a few years too late for me, but I had to highlight this for anybody who might want to write about spinster lit of the 1920s at any point…

I will not attempt to determine at what age an unmarried virgin begins to incur the terrible imputation of spinsterhood; it varies, being dependent on a lot of things, such a colour of hair, litheness of frame, complexion, ankles, chin (the under part), style of talk and of glance. I have spinsters of twenty-five, and young girls of at least forty. 

My favourite section of the book is definitely the end. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is where he stops writing about theories and starts writing fiction – he dramatises the same situation in two chapters, one from the wife’s viewpoint and one from the husband’s. The scenario is pretty simple: an argument about a flower show on the day that their son is coming home from boarding school. I don’t think the scenes are as instructive as Bennett thinks they are, but it shows that he is on much firmer ground – and certainly more fluid and more entertaining – as a writer of fiction than of, well, anything else.

While Bennett’s views are, of course, not today’s – it’s quite impressive that a man in his 50s in 1920, and a man who was very much considered one of the old guard, should even have thought of writing it. And for anybody who wants to know more about the 1920s and issues around gender at the time, this is an interesting (surprising, frustrating, etc.) book. Add it to the list for when you’re feeling particularly able to cope with reading things you don’t agree with, maybe?

15 thoughts on “Our Women: Chapters on the Sex Discord by Arnold Bennett

  • May 22, 2017 at 3:54 pm
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    Sounds like a fascinating snapshot of views at the time, and as you say, interesting that he should even have thought of writing such a book! Perhaps he was more enlightened for his time than you might give him credit for…

  • May 22, 2017 at 4:41 pm
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    Heartening, in some ways, that Bennett actually thought to commit this to paper. Just a thought, but perhaps women, worldwide, and throughout history – or at least until the twentieth century – have found themselves generally too busy to become, or become known as, ‘celebrated.. philosophers’ ?!

    • May 23, 2017 at 7:37 pm
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      Of course it depends upon your view of what constitutes “philosophy” but who could doubt the extraordinary influence (until recently rather ignored or perhaps even surpressed) of Ada Lovelace?

  • May 22, 2017 at 9:24 pm
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    “What, you didn’t see it at the airport in their 3-for-2?” Oh Simon, you make me laugh!

    I’m going to skip this title, but I appreciate your reading it for me. And BTW, there are still very, very few female pilots.

  • May 22, 2017 at 10:56 pm
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    As mentioned in a comment above, Virginia Woolf did not think highly of Bennett’s writings. Have you read her essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”? Please do so – I think it may add to your understanding of Bennett’s so-called “feminism”. I’m a new subscriber and am enjoying your blog immensely. Thank you!

    • May 22, 2017 at 11:17 pm
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      Welcome! So glad you’re enjoying my blog :)
      I have read that essay a few times, yes, and it’s so interesting – albeit perhaps not an *entirely* fair representation of Bennett’s writing. But Woolf can do very little wrong in my eyes :)

    • May 23, 2017 at 9:16 am
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      The comment has been removed i think?I cannot see it.

  • May 23, 2017 at 9:09 am
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    ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS is a lovely book and as a bonus it is a quick and easy read.

  • May 23, 2017 at 2:19 pm
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    I usually enjoy your podcasts. I find them entertaining generally. I love your enthusiasm and your discussions. I like your acceptance of each other’s preferences. I love books too and like to hear your recommendations especially if I am in a post fantastic book phase and cannot find a new one. However this latest podcast I could hardly hear…..is it my hearing? I lost interest. There was far too much laughter which should not be faulted as we need plenty of it to get us through the grim days of pre election -post Trump days but today you took it to a whole new level. Rachel could not remember two books she had recently read……now I am 60 so have an excuse but you young things come on please?

    • May 23, 2017 at 4:18 pm
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      Hi Marybel – I’m sorry to hear that; we recorded with three of us bunched around a mic, and we did worry that it would affect the sound quality and volume, which I think it must have done. We’ll be back to normal next week – many thanks for the nice things you say about the normal ones :)

  • May 23, 2017 at 7:35 pm
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    Another excellent post on your weblog and I think your overall review is pretty fair to the man and his time. However I am suprprised Bennett apperas not to have read anything by Sappho (for example) which surely would have provided some counterbalance in his argument about the superiority of male poets.

  • May 25, 2017 at 8:56 am
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    I do love these snapshots of opinions from the past! I love his writing, too, must get back to more of it. I seem enmired in the modern right now. Well, the 1990s.

  • May 29, 2017 at 5:15 pm
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    Although I am a great fan of Virginia Woolf, I absolutely don’t think she got it right about Arnold Bennett, who is unjust neglected and very under-rated. And I think Bennett writes about women better than nearly all his male contemporaries.

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