by Arnold Bennett
John Potter, Chairman of the Arnold Bennett Society, has written this introduction especially for the website:
Clayhanger is two things. It is a trilogy set against the entirety of life in the Five Towns in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and it is the first and greatest book in this trilogy, dealing with the adolescence and early manhood of a fictional young man who has a great deal of Arnold Bennett in him. Of the two succeeding volumes, one (Hilda Lessways) re-tells the events in the first book--and adds much more--from the feminine point of view, while the last (These Twain) is an account of how these two people come to terms with their marriage. Much of the trilogy is an indirect and enhanced autobiography, in that Edwin Clayhanger can be considered to be the Arnold Bennett who stayed in the Potteries and was successful in a role which he never wanted to play. Arnold himself did leave and did succeed, but in his own chosen sphere, while Richard Larch, in A Man from the North, took the plunge but failed. A fourth Bennett could possibly be added--the man whom Arnold might perhaps have wished to be and encapsulated in the slightly dubious character who confounded his contemporaries with his success, attracting luck like a magnet and often being able to turn apparent defeat into triumph. That, of course, was Denry Machin--The Card.
Clayhanger is full of accurate social and industrial history and vivid local colour, but its true essence lies in the relationship between father and son who find it difficult to adjust to each other's viewpoint. Yet Edwin, the son, appreciates the great struggle from which his father had emerged victorious, while Darius, the father, hides his real pride in his son behind introspection of his own past and his sincere ambitions for Edwin's future. This was very much the case with Arnold and his father Enoch. Each father wanted his son to take over a business which had been built up laboriously with sweat and tears. Edwin sacrificed his ambition to be an architect and became a printer, but Arnold, after a brief attempt, gave up the family legal practice in favour of his own desire to become a writer. In fact, incidentally, the relationship was never as intense as it was portrayed in fiction, though the harrowing decline and death of Darius is very much what happened to Enoch.
Many critics in the past have chosen The Old Wives' Tale as Bennett's greatest work of fiction. This may well be true, but in some aspects Clayhanger at least runs it very close, particularly in the rich diversity of its characterisation, and also in the depth of its local historical content, some of which came from eye-witness accounts and opinions. It must however be granted that some of the force of Clayhanger is in the sheer aura of authenticity which stems from its autobiographical content. That wonderful hypocrite Auntie Hamps, Darius Clayhanger, Edwin himself and Hilda, too, in part echo respectively Frances Longson (sister of Arnold's mother), Enoch Bennett, Arnold himself and his wife Marguerite. Add the superb cameo portraits such as the sad, sweet but almost-too-good-to-be-true Janet Orgreave, her father Osmond (the architect), Edwin's self-sacrificing sister Maggie, Mr Shushions--the dry husk of a great and good man, and the ponderous self-importance yet unshakeable reliability of Big James Yarlett, and it becomes immediately obvious why the mammoth 1976 ATV adaptation of the trilogy was so successful. How sad that most of this production has been lost to posterity, but the books live on and Clayhanger in particular deserves to survive until the reading of great literature falls totally out of fashion.
© John Potter, 2002
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Page created 25 November 2002 and last updated 25 November 2002
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