DHL and Bennett

This guest blog is an excerpt from Stephen Bailey’s talk to the DH Lawrence Society 12 October 2016. 

Although Arnold Bennett was not an exact contemporary of Lawrence (born 1867, he was of the previous generation) it’s interesting to compare the two writers. Firstly, there are remarkable similarities in their careers, for example, despite using them repeatedly as settings for fiction, both came to hate their home towns, and rarely returned. Furthermore, Bennett’s career gives insight into and perspective on the literary world that Lawrence entered around 1910, when Bennett was well established.

Family life

Bennett’s upbringing was more middle-class than Lawrence’s, his father being a solicitor, having worked his way up, by great effort, via pawnbroking, from being a potter. Also, Bennett was the eldest of six children, which gave him a strong sense of responsibility. His mother was not the dominant partner in the marriage, and Bennett was far more influenced by his domineering father, who expected him to become a solicitor too. Lawrence was of course heavily influenced by his mother, who passed on her strong ethical code. Was this a crucial difference between the two writers’ development?

Religion

Although both were brought up in a nonconformist atmosphere, there was an important distinction between Lawrence’s Congregationalism and Bennett’ s Methodism. While the young Lawrence appears to have enjoyed attending chapel and relished the theological discussion, Bennett saw nothing but hypocrisy in the chapel, even as a schoolboy. This may be partly explained by the differences between the sects, but was also due to Lawrence’s character, searching for the ideal country, society or community (which he called Ramanin). He is often described as a ‘religious’ writer.

Bennett, by contrast, was essentially a Fabian, aware of the drawbacks of Edwardian England but intent on a programme of steady improvement. But it is notable that both wrote fictional accounts of church and chapel going that heavily satirised the ceremonies, as in Lawrence’s Fanny and Annie, or chapters of The Old Wives’ Tale. There was a world of difference between the emotionalism and sentimentality of Wesleyan Methodism and the harder, more intellectual and tougher culture of Congregationalism.

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Early careers

Lawrence and Bennett followed an early career path that has become well-trodden: fleeing the provinces for the potentialities of London, moving from the non-literary world into writing short stories/ journalism, and then attaining the status of novelist with a largely autobiographical first novel. Bennett was 31 at this point, Lawrence, always more precocious, only 25.

Worth mentioning that Lawrence seems to have had his first sexual experience at this time, in 1910, whereas Bennett appears to have waited till he was about 35, when living in Paris. One suggestion is that Bennett’s strict Methodist upbringing led him to sublimate all his energies into writing, while Lawrence, although quite puritanical, was more sexually adventurous.

Bennett worked initially in a London law office, but started writing and quite soon became editor of a magazine called Woman, as well as writing serials, short stories and assorted journalism. This was in some respects a golden period for young writers, with a wide variety of periodicals buying articles and stories for the newly-literate masses. His work rate was remarkable, as evidenced by his summary for 1899:

‘This year I have written 335,340 words, grand total. 228 articles and stories have actually been published. My total earnings were £592 …’

He became prosperous, renting a large house in Fulham, and providing for several members of his family. He was well aware of the attractions of the middlebrow market, contrasting the difficulty of producing his first serious novel with the rewards of writing a popular handbook (Journalism for Women):

‘How different the reception of this book from the frigid welcome given to A Man from the North! The latter, a serious and laborious work, has waited, after acceptance, nearly two years for publication. Journalism for Women, thrown off in about eight weeks, is to be printed and published in less than a month.’

Both Bennett and Lawrence worked in various genres, producing plays, short stories, reviews, non-fiction articles and textbooks as well as novels. Edwardian writers specialised less than their modern counterparts (Bennett also wrote poetry, but even fans like Margaret Drabble find it terrible).

But Bennett wasn’t purely interested in producing potboilers. Like Lawrence he was well-read in continental literature, admiring Zola, Maupassant and Chekhov. He saw his serious writing helping to establish his reputation, thereby inflating his wider earnings, and went on to produce Anna of the Five Towns, and then his masterpiece, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908).

There are obvious similarities between this and Women in Love; both are concerned with the fortunes of a pair of sisters, although with Bennett’s book we follow their whole adult lives – lengthy time-scapes are a Bennett speciality. It is notable how both writers seem to be able to present a rounded and complex picture of their female characters, yet, unlike Lawrence, Bennett inhabited a highly masculine, clubby world for the first half of his life.

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Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden) from Women in Love

The glaring difference between the two is, of course, financial. Lawrence led a hand-to-mouth existence for most of his life, living in friends’ country cottages or cheaply abroad, at times relying on handouts from friends and family. By contrast, Bennett was one of the most successful writers of an era when taxes were low and luxuries cheap. His Rolls, his yacht and his country house made him an easy target as a ‘champagne socialist’. At the time when Lawrence was publishing his first novel Bennett was earning, in modern money, over £1m per year. Oddly, other successful writers of the period – HG Wells, for instance, or Kipling, were not attacked in the same way. Possibly Bennett’s denigrators were jealous of his sales figures?

Notable that both writers make continued use of their hometowns, long after having moved away and despite the dislike they express for these places. Expatriate experience is used in a similar way, so that Bennett’s Sophia lives in Paris (The Old Wives’ Tale), as he had, while Lawrence’s Alvina (The Lost Girl) and Aaron in Aaron’s Rod move from Eastwood to Italy (as he had).

Lawrence and Bennett

They never met, but were clearly aware of each other’s work and had friends, as well as an agent, in common.

During WW1 Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy protested against the banning of The Rainbow in 1915. In 1918 Bennett worked for the Ministry of Information and Lawrence unsuccessfully applied to him for a job.

Bennett had a generally positive view of L’s work – but it was not reciprocated.

In 1913 Lawrence wrote from Italy:

‘I hate England and its hopelessness. I hate Bennett’s resignation. Tragedy ought really to be a great kick at misery. But Anna of the Five Towns seems like an acceptance – so does all the modern stuff since Flaubert. I hate it.’

Lawrence felt the same about the sisters in The Old Wives’ Tale and apparently wrote The Lost Girl to show that there was an alternative course for women ie marry an Italian and live in rural squalor. But how many modern readers would see this as preferable?

Lawrence seems to have disliked urban life and mainly lived in country (partly for economy). Bennett had a country house but is a distinctly urban writer. Notable that most of Lawrence’s time abroad was spent in rural areas, whereas Bennett lived mainly in Paris.

In December 1915, Lawrence wrote to Pinker (presumably about The Rainbow):

‘Tell AB that all rules of construction hold good only for novels that are copies of other novels. A book which is not a copy of other books has its own construction, and what he calls faults, he being an old imitator, I call characteristics … Still, I think he is generous.’

It was unusual for Lawrence to express gratitude (for defence of his book). Of course, some of Lawrence’s comments can be seen as the younger generation taking a kick at the older – fair game. Professional jealousy seems natural for writers!

Several entries in Bennett’s Journals show that he read Lawrence and had a high opinion of him. Bennett wrote in an Evening Standard review of 1930, just after Lawrence’s death:

‘Lawrence was a novelist, a dramatist, a poet, a critic, a descriptive writer and often first-rate in every branch. And he was a first class journalist too. He chose his subjects well. He handled them well – clearly, succinctly, picturesquely, beautifully. He didn’t flourish his pen before beginning, and when he had finished he knew he had finished, and stopped. Not a word wasted. The subjects chosen were important, elemental, fundamental, and he struck at once deep down into the core of them.’

Stephen Bailey is the author of Heartlands: A Guide to DH Lawrence’s Midland Roots (Troubador, £9.99)

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