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?

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

The Old Wive's TaleIt’s not long since I read my first book by Arnold Bennett – his detailed advice about how to acquire literary taste – and all of a sudden I’ve read two. I’ve voracious right now.

Actually, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) – which I have been erroneously calling The Old Wife’s Tale since forever – was the choice of somebody at my book group. I was quite enthusiastic to read a Bennett novel because of what a significant name he was in the early 20th century, and only a little less enthusiastic when I saw that it was over 600 pages of quite small font. And, boy, does he fill those pages. (In a great way, for the most part.)

Bennett’s thing is detail. I kind of knew that in advance, from Virginia Woolf’s famous essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown‘ – which I can’t now resist quoting, because it does set you up for the level that Bennett goes to:

He, indeed, would observe every detail with immense care. He would notice the advertisements; the pictures of Swanage and Portsmouth; the way in which the cushion bulged between the buttons; how Mrs. Brown wore a brooch which had cost three‐and‐ten‐three at Whitworth’s bazaar; and had mended both gloves—indeed the thumb of the left‐hand glove had been replaced. And he would observe, at length, how this was the non‐stop train from Windsor which calls at Richmond for the convenience of middle‐class residents, who can afford to go to the theatre but have not reached the social rank which can afford motor‐cars, though it is true, there are occasions (he would tell us what), when they hire them from a company (he would tell us which).

Now, Woolf was being rather snide about this. With her impressionistic style, it was inevitable that she would look down on this sort of Edwardian writing; she was of the generation that would break away from it. Fine. But I actually found I rather loved being immersed in this detail. The focus of it is two ordinary women: sisters, Constance and Sophia. They live in a house adjoining a shop run by their father, on a square in an ordinary Staffordshire town. During this upbringing, their whole lives are in these rooms and this town. They know everybody; everybody knows them. It is emphatically a novel of English life (at least at this juncture), and Bennett spares not the pen in writing about it:

Constance and Sophia, busy with the intense preoccupations of youth, recked not of such matters. They were surrounded by the county. On every side the fields and moors of Staffordshire, intersected by roads and lanes, railways, watercourses and telegraph-lines, patterned by hedges, ornamented and made respectable by halls and genteel parks, enlivened by villages at the intersections, and warmly surveyed by the sun, spread out undulating. And trains were rushing round curves in deep cuttings, and carts and waggons trotting and jingling on the yellow roads, and long, narrow boats passing in a leisure majestic and infinite over the surface of the stolid canals; the rivers had only themselves to support, for Staffordshire rivers have remained virgin of keels to this day. One could imagine the messages concerning prices, sudden death, and horses, in their flight through the wires under the feet of birds.

In this world, Bennett describes every detail of their life. Such detail that it seems impossible to summarise, and also someone seems impossible that it could be fiction. Were we only to hear about (say) the death of their father, their marriages, their turmoils and victories, then it would feel plotted. As it is, we hear about the way in which they walk from room to room, the customers whom the assistants respect and those for whom they will not stand up, the manner of the tea tray and the teacups. Everything is here; every moment.

There are, however, a few moments of major event in the novel – even of sensation. Somehow this doesn’t feel ill-measured alongside the tone of Bennett’s writing, though by rights it should – perhaps the occasional extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary is simply another element of realism. One I shan’t mention, but is very interestingly used. The first such moment is Sophia absconding.

She runs off with a local charmer – and leaves the pages of the novel maybe only a sixth of the way through (so I thought). We are left to watch Constance grow older, marry, have a son, and continue to live next to the shop. It was a beautifully told story – the emotions Bennett describes of mother, daughter, sister, and wife seem (to one who is admittedly none of these things) to be perfectly judged and very effectively portrayed. All of it feels real.

Bennett – I did not realise beforehand – is very amusing. In the hands of Hardy, The Old Wives’ Tale would be gut-wrenching. This is not a comic novel, but without the levity of his style, it would have become a tragedy. Constance and Sophia both suffer a fair amount, and yet Bennett doesn’t leave the reader miserable. And, of course, I forgot to note down any examples. He doesn’t go for bon mots or witticisms, per se, but takes an authorial step back to tease or raise an eyebrow at his characters. It’s wonderful, and made me laugh out loud a few times – the only instance I can find isn’t the finest, but it made me laugh. Mr Povey is shop manager, and his way with labels is not to be underestimated: ‘It is not too much to say that Mr Povey, to whom heaven had granted a minimum share of imagination, had nevertheless discovered his little parcel of imagination in the recesses of being, and brought it effectively to bear on tickets’.

I have said little of the second half of the novel. And that is because I would have advised to Bennett that he cut it altogether. Around the halfway mark, we are flung back to the moment Sophia departed the novel – and we follow her instead. We abandon the ageing Constance in favour of the once-again-young Sophia, and see her life in Paris. As a separate novel, it would be quite interesting – and the contrast between the sisters’ destinies is doubtless well orchestrated – but I should have much preferred it to be summarised in a page or two. I don’t think I have much patience with novels which cover the same timespan more than once, and I certainly prefer a short novel to a long one – had The Old Wive’s Tale *actually* been The Old Wife’s Tale and only looked at Constance’s life, I should have liked it all the more. (But I will concede that this opinion was not shared by anybody at book group, and thus I may well be in the minority.)

So, I shall certainly return to Bennett when I’m in the mood for this level of expert detail. That won’t be every week, nor yet every month, but it might be every year. I’m glad to have finally made the acquaintance of one of the most notable names of 20th-century writing – and to have realised something of his worth away from the unjustly negative reputation he might have been lumbered with.

Literary Taste (how to form it) by Arnold Bennett

I love that this sort of book was once published – and not only published but, as my copy suggests, owned by the 23rd Hartlepools Troop of Scouts. I do hope they enjoyed it. Who knows what journey it then went on before I picked it up in Edinburgh?

Literary Taste

Literary Taste: how to form it was published in 1909, though there was later a revised edition by Frank Swinnerton in the 1930s, according to Wikipedia. My copy is undated but is evidently from around 1909 – because it doesn’t have the extra section Swinnerton added (more on that later), and, well, because the book is obviously from that period. One of my specialist talents now is being able to date an early 20th-century hardback to within a few years. It doesn’t come in handy all that often.

Bennett had only been publishing novels for about a decade when this book came out, but they included big-hitters and his name was already at the forefront of literary reputation – though it would take a tumble later, when he became more or less synonymous with the stale Edwardians (thanks partly to Virginia Woolf’s influential essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’). I’ve yet to read any of his fiction, though my book group is doing The Old Wive’s Tale next month, but I’ve read quite a bit of his reviewing and journalism. He’s certainly got a passion for books, and the sort of determined I’m-just-like-you persona that is rivalled only by Jennifer Lawrence.

This book is addressed to the person who enjoys reading and wants to be well-read, but doesn’t quite know where to start. Bennett is almost absurdly precise in where you should start (it is, apparently, the essays of Charles Lamb), but before this he says things about literature that echo down the decades to get a rousing ‘amen!’ from all of us.

Literature, instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living. I am extremely anxious to avoid rhetorical exaggerations. I do not think I am guilty of one in asserting that he who has not been ‘presented the freedom’ of literature has not wakened up out of his prenatal sleep. He is merely not born. He can’t see; he can’t hear; he can’t feel, in any full sense. He can only eat his dinner.

Love it.

The aim of literary study is not to amuse the hours of leisure; it is to awake oneself, it i to be alive, to intensify one’s capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, and for comprehension. It is not to affect one hour, but twenty-four hours. It is to change utterly one’s relations with the world.

Preach, Bennett!

Well, having said that, I think it can also just be to amuse the hours of leisure. I don’t think Bennett would think much of me, literature-wise. For one thing, he’s no big fan of the academic study of literature. For another, he’s not very impressed by people who don’t start with 16th-century literature – and, I’ll be honest, it’s been quite a while since I grabbed a copy of anything from before the first world war. Well, except Literary Taste, of course.

Bennett writes very interestingly about why a classic is a classic, who decides it, and how choices in reading can make or break one’s literary education. All of it feels fresh today, and are debates that still rage. But Bennett isn’t just talking hypotheticals: he wants to get down to brass tacks about actual books to read. Not only Charles Lamb (though emphatically him) – Bennett compiles a list of essential books, and prices them out as well. It’s nice that he is aware of financial limitations, and deliberately omits some authors whose works are not available in good, reasonable editions in 1909. It’s also so unexpected to see these sorts of balance sheets in a popular literary text.

This was apparently pretty influential. Wikipedia has kindly put them all in a list, which you can examine closely; it also includes books from the post-1909 period of literature that Swinnerton added in his 1937 revision. I am more comfortable ground in this years, of course, and it’s nice to see people like A.A. Milne included – and unexpected to see Stella Benson’s The Little World, which I haven’t heard of despite being (I suspect) one of relatively few people today to have read more than one book by Stella Benson. And there’s a Compton Mackenzie recommendation to follow up after my recent review of Poor Relations.

I’ll admit, Bennett’s choices leave me feeling like I have very little literary taste – and also wondering how he’d time to read all these authors and books by the time he was 42. As he concludes the list (which includes brilliantly sassy moments like ‘Names such as those of Charlotte Yonge and Dinah Craik are omitted intentionally’):

When you have read, wholly or in part, a majority of these three hundred and thirty-five volumes, with enjoyment, you may begin to whisper to yourself that your literary taste is formed; and you may pronounce judgment on modern works which come before the bar of your opinion in the calm assurance that, though to err is human, you do at any rate know what you are talking about.

Well, not yet, Arnold. And probably never. Somehow I find it more fascinating to read books from 1909 about how people formed literary taste – and this was certainly a great, interesting, unusual read.