Monday 1 October 2018

'A master of the middle range'

'She was tall, but not unusually so, and sturdily built up. Her figure, though the bust was a little flat, had the feminine curves of absolute maturity. Anna had been a woman since seventeen, and was now on the eve of her twenty-first birthday. She wore a plain, home-made light frock checked with brown and edge with brown velvet, thin cotton gloves of cream colour, and a broad straw hat like her sister's. Her grave face, owing to the prominence of the cheekbones and the width of the jaw, had a slight angularity; the lips were thin, the brown eyes rather large, the eyebrows level, the nose fine and delicate; the ears could scarcely be seen for the dark brown hair which was brushed diagonally across the temples, leaving the forehead only a pale triangle. It seemed a face for the cloister, austere in contour, fervent in expression, the severity of it mollified by that resigned and spiritual melancholy peculiar to women who through the error of destiny have been born into a wrong environment.'

Well, having recently been reading rather a lot of marginal or out-of-the-way fiction, I thought I'd immerse myself in a proper, well-made, old-fashioned, brass-and-mahogany novel – and the above is the kind of writing you're likely to get in that kind of work. It's the first (and weirdly exhaustive) description of the heroine in Arnold Bennett's Anna of the Five Towns (1902), which I have just finished reading.
  Happily, such passages are few and far between in Anna, which is quite a short novel (under 200 pages). Bennett does occasionally apostrophise the reader or offer airy generalisations, but his bravura descriptive passages more than earn their keep, vividly evoking the Potteries towns of Staffordshire as they were around the turn of the last century. At the centre of the novel is, of course, Anna, a character drawn with great subtlety and finesse, and her desperately unhappy relationship with her father, a pathological miser who seems to delight in inflicting mental cruelty on the sensitive Anna. Such is Bennett's skill in bringing the character of Anna to life that it is impossible not to be drawn into her story and to suffer (and occasionally rejoice) with her. As the playing out of the narrative is equally skilful, this turns out to be an engrossing, emotionally involving page-turner.
  Bennett described Anna of the Five Towns as 'a sermon against parental tyranny' – something he had experienced himself in his early life. But it is less a sermon than an exploration of the effects of such tyranny on a particular sensibility, the movements of which are traced with a sometimes almost Jamesian delicacy and precision. The world in which Bennett places Anna is a small, narrow one, dominated to what today seems an extraordinary extent by the Methodist church in its various manifestations. Bennett's focus is accordingly narrow and closely attentive to the telling detail.
The novel is not without weaknesses, especially in the characterisation – the male lead, the man who falls in love with Anna, is notably thinly drawn – but, reading it, you can appreciate John Gross's generous judgment of Bennett (in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters):
'If one wanted to explain to a ghost what it felt like to be alive – on the whole, by and large – Bennett is the English novelist one would turn to first. He is a master of the middle range, almost unsurpassed at showing how everything goes on as usual and nothing remains the same.'
  Bennett, a blatantly commercial writer who made no bones about his love of money and luxury, courted the distaste of daintier sensibilities – especially Bloomsbury ones – throughout his career, and towards the end deserved some of the contempt that came his way. He remains deeply unfashionable and somehow suspect, but the best of his novels remain in print – and, on the evidence of Anna, clearly deserve to. I fancy I'm going to be reading more.

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