Forgotten star

I hate shopping. I have no pleasure in trawling round shops at all, unless it happens to be a book shop; or even better a second-hand book shop. The thing I love about book shops is that even if I go in with a clear idea of what I want to buy, browsing nearly always means that I will find some unexpected treasures; and so it was in Hay-on-Wye, where I came across the journals of Arnold Bennett.

"The business man of letters"
Caricature of Arnold Bennett drawn by
"Owl" for Vanity Fair, 2 April 1913.
Arnold Bennett is now largely forgotten (unless you're an omelette fan), but he was one of the best-known names of his day - a friend of Lord Beaverbrook and Winston Churchill, and just about anybody who was anybody; a novelist, playwright, and critic, who travelled extensively. He was erudite, a little self-important, but enormously well-liked, and not just by his fans - when he lay dying of typhoid in his London home in 1931, straw was scattered in Baker Street, to prevent the dying man being disturbed by the sound of horses in the streets - it was one of the last times this happened in London, and a sign of respect for a well-loved author.

For some one who had advanced so high in society, it's also important to remember Bennett's background - a lower middle-class boy from the Potteries, who suffered all his life from a terrible stammer. He was a most unlikely person to make it in the stiflingly class-oriented Britain of the early twentieth century. The fact that he did says a lot both for his talent and his personality. The fact that he is now largely forgotten is probably largely because of cultural snobbery - the Bloomsbury group in particular were very nasty about him.

I knew the name, I very vaguely remembered a BBC adaptation of some of Bennett's "Five Towns" stories, but other than that I knew nothing about him; but the journals were an absolute delight. From life in Paris at the turn of the century (very Colette) to theatrical London, and the troubling politics of the '20s and '30s. Conversations with Elgar and a young up-and-coming film director, who I suspect may have been Alfred Hitchcock. His friendships with George Bernard Shaw (seemingly irascible, but very much liked by Bennett, who especially loved his Irish accent) and the sometimes difficult, but always interesting H.G. Wells. There were the snobs of the Bloomsbury set, and the cab drivers of Paris, and the move from an era of steam and horses to trans-Atlantic liners and motor vehicles.

It was a fascinating period to be alive, and Bennett made the most of it. I loved his journals. The later ones were not as enjoyable, and I think this was largely because they were always written with a view to publication. As a result the Bennett you see here is the Bennett that his fans would like to see, and how he himself wished to be viewed. The earlier extracts carefully selected by Frank Swinnerton, who was a friend, reveal the man himself - at times exasperating, occasionally a bit of an intellectual snob, but someone who I'm sure it would have been great fun to meet. The journals were entrancing, and reminded me that I really must become rather better acquainted with the forgotten Arnold Bennett.

For some more information and for a better idea of just how central was Bennett's place in the literary society of his day, have a look at the handlist for his archive, held at Keele University.


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