A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
If you were an Edwardian reader, and were looking for something to while away a train journey or a dull evening at home, you would probably look for a novel sold or shelved as ‘light literature’ or ‘light reading’, because you were not looking for political essays or celebrated sermons. ‘Light reading’ used to be unexceptional, a standard term for a popular sector of the market in the very early years of the last century. But by the 1920s its meaning had altered to carry an additional, snooty, message of ‘not quite good enough’ along with ‘undemanding froth for the uneducated’. The novels of the immensely prolific Staffordshire writer Arnold Bennett were always categorised as light reading, and it was no coincidence that Virginia Woolf famously (but only ‘famously’ to that very small number of people who study 1920s book history for a living) criticised him as the epitome of lazy, uncommitted, mediocre and insufficiently demanding middlebrow fiction. I would far rather read a book that entertained me, than a novel that made me work hard to understand it, so imagine my amusement at how I read the last two novels from my reading pile this month. Both were published only three years away from each end of the First World War.
Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922) took me over a week to read, and I had to force myself to get through a bit more each evening. Arnold Bennett’s The Card (1911) took me 36 hours, and I would have finished it sooner if I hadn’t left it at home to stop me reading it at work. Jacob’s Room was all experimental impressionistic narrative, and reading it is to construct the story out of scraps and assumptions. It has a stale but familiar late-Victorian / Edwardian upper-class setting, which novelists had been using since Oscar Wilde. It’s about Jacob’s life as a boy and a young man, and how the people who love him spend their time waiting for him to love them back, or at least pay them some attention. The characters are meaningful, cynical, dull, and frequently insipid. The novel only comes to life when Woolf starts enjoying herself by being cruel about stereotypes. Her treatment of the older married woman pursuing the younger man is something Ann Bridge went on to do more repetitiously until the 1950s at least. Jacob’s Room is a novel designed to show how a new kind of narration could work, and it’s very worthy and interesting and certainly worth studying. It’s also painfully unenjoyable to read.
In contrast (thank goodness) Arnold Bennett’s The Card is a sedate riot, all the way through. It’s a prequel to his The Regent of 1913, in which Denry Machin of Bursley – who is a spectacularly successful entrepreneur from the provinces – builds a theatre in London as a personal challenge to not lose money on it, since in his view a man from the north is twice as good as a Londoner any day, and knowing how to do business is more important to run a theatre than any knowledge about drama. In The Card, we meet Denry as he begins to build his fortunes from zero, and the novel ends when he becomes Bursley’s mayor-elect, the pinnacle of his ambition. The charm of The Card is that we naturally want to have Denry succeed. He’s an engaging chap; he lives with his mother who is grimly devoted to him, and he is polite, kind and philanthropic. He doesn’t do people down unless they’ve really deserved it. He takes wild, extravagant chances – socially and financially – so that we are agog to see how he can carry things off each time. The story of how he finally gets his mother to move out of the insanitary slum she’s lived in for thirty years is breathtaking in his audacity and inventiveness. He represents progress, and the improvement of business and service to the public, and is up against the old guard who want things to stay unchanged so their comfort and position will be unaffected without effort. So The Card is a story for the upwardly mobile, told from the lower working-class perspective, which was Bennett’s speciality. This was possibly one of the reasons that Woolf didn’t care for his novels, since they celebrate the strength of the small businessman and urban cohesion, and the joys of a burgeoning industrial economy, which was not at all her kind of fiction. The Card is also packed with fun: each of Denry’s exploits had me grinning with pleasure because Bennett is very good at telling the story that gives enjoyment and wonder, that clamours to be retold as an anecdote.
The Card is like an extended pub story, the best kind of long tale read while you’re waiting for a train and need an hour or two to be whiled away when you’re on it. It’s skillful, affectionate, deeply interesting – I think it must contain the earliest account in English of a touristy skiing holiday – and simply a pleasure to read from beginning to end. The fact that it was made into a 1952 film (called The Promotor in the USA), starring Alec Guinness and Petula Clarke pretty much confirms its status as excellent light entertainment.
The Arnold Bennett Society website has all the information you will need about Bennett, his books and his career.