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.
Guest reviewer Colin Fisher gives us Arnold Bennett’s Lord Raingo.
Arnold Bennett, the popular novelist and critic from the years before the First World War until his death in 1931, is known today for novels such as Anna of the Five Towns, The Old Wives’ Tale and Riceyman Steps. In these novels he looks honestly but with compassion at the consequences that follow from the decisions made by the principal characters. Sometimes Bennett casts a slightly more judgemental eye over prevailing social mores but his main concern is almost always the personal rather than the political. An exception, however, is his novel Lord Raingo, published in 1926. In it he tells the story of Sam Raingo, Eccles-born millionaire, and ennobled during the First World War by the prime minister and his childhood friend, Andy Clyth. Put in charge of the Ministry of Records, Raingo is now responsible for doling out secret service money and making sure that the international press toes the official line of the British government. This is no easy task given that he assumes his post in the summer of 1918, when the Allies are still reeling from the German spring offensive. Bennett gives us a three-dimensional autocrat: Sam is estranged from his wife Adela, his son Geoffrey is a prisoner of the Germans and he has a mistress, Delphine, whom he does not trust.
It was published simultaneously in both Britain and America and, like all of Bennett’s novels, sold well. Its reviews, however, seem to be talking about several different works. John St Loe Strachey’s review in The Spectator described the novel as ‘a masterpiece’. Montogomery Belgion’s praise was more qualified: writing in The Saturday Review, he wrote that while he accepted that the novel was ‘told with amazing skill and effect’, in his opinion Bennett himself was not happy with the character of Raingo. Cecil Roberts in The Bookman wrote ‘The story was utterly negligible’. Stephen Graham, writing in the American edition of The Bookman, described it as ‘a wonderful piece of mockery’. William Lyon Phelps of The Saturday Review of Literature wrote that he gave up after a hundred pages ‘owing to invincible boredom’ and Simon Pure, writing in The Londoner, made the bold claim that the novel made ‘fewer concessions to popular taste than any other book published by a widely read novelist in our generation’. (‘Simon Pure’ was in fact Frank Swinnerton, novelist and friend of Bennett.) This is quite a range of opinions, although it would be strange if reviewers agreed with each other all the time. Having read the novel, however, I find myself agreeing with all of them and this is what makes me wonder if the novel is indeed a masterpiece.
I had not read the reviews before starting on the novel. Hence up to page 270 I read, in Bennett’s wonderfully incisive style, a political novel that threw light on the role played by politicians’ personalities, rather than their convictions, in the formation of policy. Bennett, I knew, had drawn on his own experiences working for Lord Beaverbrook in the Ministry of Information during the war. I felt, as a result, that I was a privileged spectator as the great men of the day, over cocktails or whisky, jockeyed for position, or simply defended their turf by swatting down a rival. One of Raingo’s rivals is Sir Rupert Afflock and he is duly swatted. Bennett pulls no punches in identifying why: ‘He [Raingo] was gloriously living, and if his heart played him false and he dropped down dead that minute, his last thought would be: “I have lived”’. Five pages later, after a meeting with the Labour leader Sid Jenkin, and told that the prime minister would not be available for a scheduled meeting, Raingo feels ‘thrown down from greatness. He saw nets being spread to entangle his stumbling feet. He saw crevasses, shifting surfaces of treacherous snow’. The meeting, when finally it takes place, only adds to Raingo’s concerns. A debate is to be held in the House of Lords. ‘“And there’s this,” added the Prime Minister. “You’ve made yourself so popular. There’s such a thing as being too popular. They’re jealous of you.”’ Raingo’s hubris, his overweening ambition, is about to awaken the ire of the gods and, like Milton’s Satan, he is to be cast down.
Except he isn’t. Instead, on page 270, he falls ill with pneumonia and Delphine goes missing. Confined to bed in his mansion at Moze Hall on the banks of the Thames Estuary, he listens to the diagnoses of the doctors and the instructions of the nurses and wonders what they are keeping from him. Raingo’s distrust never leaves him. Even in his fever-filled nights the questions continue, to the point that he does not believe he has slept at all, even when he has the evidence of opening his eyes as daylight enters the room. Here, I believe, lies the answer to the question as to whether the novel is a masterpiece. Is this change in tone and content an act of genius on the part of Bennett, or a misjudged literary sleight of hand?
By the time of his illness his son Geoffrey has managed to return home, but very damaged by his experiences. From his sickbed Raingo watches a relationship grow between Geoffrey and Delphine’s younger sister Gwen. The novel is dark and yet I feel Bennett is trying to introduce into it an idea of regeneration. Raingo is of the old generation, as is the rest of the government. Their time is over and a new younger generation is taking the reins.
Montgomery Belgion, despite his qualified praise for the novel, wrote ‘once Lord Raingo was on his back in the great Empire bed at Moze Hall, my interest suddenly increased, I became absorbed, fascinated’. On the other hand, Cecil Roberts, who found the story negligible, added, ‘It starts impossibly and collapses on page 269’. I almost put down the book for good on a number of occasions too, wondering if I was overcome by invincible boredom. But I did not and found myself upset at the ending, because of what Bennett had described, how he described it and for leaving me, as a reader, quite troubled. These are the signs, I believe, of a great novel.
Arnold Bennett, Lord Raingo (1926, House of Stratus, 2008), £8.99 pb, ISBN 978-0755115952