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Bennett 1 Woolf 0

BennettIf 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.

Jacob's roomVirginia 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.

220px-The_Card_FilmPosterThe 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.

Kate podcasts about the books that she gobbles rather than reads, including one about The Regent, at

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

13 comments on “Bennett 1 Woolf 0

  1. theotherkirsty
    October 29, 2013

    Thanks for this, Kate. I must confess to having had a prejudice against Bennett without ever reading him, and that is absolutely down to having been a huge Woolf fan ever since my undergraduate years. This is bad form really, and I should rectify it by reading something by him and repenting for my readerly sins. Perhaps The Card is the one I should start with!

  2. Sharon Robinson
    October 29, 2013

    Thanks for an entertaining review Kate. Given that I spent six years of my life in the Potteries, I haven’t read nearly enough Arnold Bennett. However, I have read The Card and I love Denry, his cheek, panache and his flair for annoying the local vested interests with his irreverence. He’s often quite rude and he challenges the idea that respect is something that just falls into your lap if you are rich, influential and male enough to deserve it. That’s disruptive enough in our time; in Bennett’s it was practically seditious.

    Arnold Bennett isn’t very easy to get hold of in paperback, and what there is tends to be quite expensive, but there is a lot of him in digital editions, many of them free or cheap. I must rummage around and give myself a treat.

  3. Moira
    October 29, 2013

    Brilliant. You’ve just reminded me that I used to love Arnold Bennett and he’s sort of dropped off my radar of late – a situation I must rectify -and my little eyes lit up at the news that there’s lots of him available in digital editions … (Thank you, Sharon!)

    Never a huge Woolf fan … I definitely have to be in the mood for her – or more precisely for a book in which very little happens but you’re seduced by the beautifully crafted paragraphs whilst waiting …

  4. rosyb
    October 29, 2013

    I really hated reading Virginia Woolf as a student. I loved stuff like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury so I don’t think it’s so much the style as the content. You are so brilliant at getting right to it, Kate -that suffocating stuffy thing and yes the characters never really seemed very interesting to me either. I’m sure it’s heresy to say this, though. I do wonder if I should read them again to see if I’ve changed or if I get more from it now. One thing I was thinking about these self-consciously interior books is how hard it is to get any comedy in them.

  5. Erica
    October 29, 2013

    Ho ho ho! Thanks Kate, for this most enjoyable review. My personal non-favourite Woolf novel is To the Lighthouse. I’ve still never finished it, and suspect I will only do so when made to teach it. Give me Elizabeth von Arnim any day.

  6. sshaver
    October 29, 2013

    For some reason I’m just reading Allingham’s Police At The Funeral (1931). It would be hard to find more affected dialogue (except maybe in current “popular” fiction). I hope the Bennett people can at least talk.

  7. CFisher
    October 29, 2013

    You had me at Bennett 1 Woolf 0…

  8. Kate
    October 29, 2013

    sshaver: that Allingham (why are we on Allingham?) is definitely one of the stiffer ones, but I think that’s because it was her first serious Campion: all the others preceding that one were fey and supernaturally-inflected, and really a bit daft. Campion starts to grow up in P at the F.

    Anyway, yes, Bennett does some excellent dialogue, usually in dialect, but not so much that you’d notice.

    Erica, I haven’t dared begin that bloody Lighthouse book, I read J’s R as a training exercise, to ease my way into Woolflandia gently. But I think the Lighthouse will be the last one I tackle, and, as you say, to read only when I have to teach the dratted thing.

    Sharon: I was lucky to find The Card in a second-hand bookshop, snapped up with glee.

  9. Hilary
    October 29, 2013

    I studied Bennett’s ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ for A level, and absolutely loved it! And I’ve re-read it since with equal pleasure. So why, I wonder, have I never tried to read ‘The Card’? Thanks to this review, I must, and I know I will enjoy it.

    As for Virginia Woolf … I will have to hide behind the sofa after this, but I’ve never read anything by her, and it’s the impression I’ve had that she makes herself hard to love as a writer that has prevented me from trying. Oh dear. Maybe this review is also a challenge to put that right – only not by reading ‘Jacob’s Room’ I feel!

  10. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book)
    November 4, 2013

    This review amused me a lot, for all that I didn’t agree with the premise, seeing as I adore Woolf! But I haven’t read any of Bennett’s fiction, only some of his non-fiction… The Card sounds a wonder.

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  12. Ela
    November 26, 2013

    I’ve never been able to take Bennett seriously after reading a parody called ‘Scruts’, but maybe I should give his work a go! I rather liked ‘To The Lighthouse’, but it remains the only Woolf I’ve read (tried ‘Orlando’ and gave up part way through).

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This entry was posted on October 29, 2013 by in Entries by Kate, Fiction: 20th Century, Fiction: humour and tagged , .



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