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.
Arnold Bennett wrote A Man from the North, his first novel, in 1896, finishing it shortly before his 29th birthday. Bennett, like its central character Richard Larch, had travelled south to make a new life in London, arriving in 1889, having left his family home in Burslem. Richard makes the same journey from Burslem’s fictional counterpart, Bursley. Both men would work as clerks in legal offices, both would crave female company, display a liking for French authors such as Maupassant and Flaubert and dream of becoming writers. The opening line of the novel could be used as an introduction for both men: “There grows in the North Country a certain kind of youth of whom it may be said that he is born to be a Londoner.” To write of one of these men is, consciously or not, to write of the other. As in many of Bennett’s novels he based characters on people he knew. John Eland, an early London friend, appears in the novel as Mr Aked, an elderly legal clerk. Bennett lived in lodgings in Raphael Street and so too did Richard.
The plot of the novel can be summed up as, boy finally meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets other girl, boy wonders if he is cut out to be a writer. As such, it would be easy to dismiss the novel as lightweight. Bennett had been working at the weekly magazine Woman since 1894 and he had been made its editor in 1896. Apart from theatre and book reviews, it published articles such as how to bathe a baby and did rich women argue more than poor. Under the pen names of Ada, Gwendolyn and Barbara, Bennett contributed many of these articles. Each parallel between the novel and his own life would, therefore, seem to diminish the former.
However, this overly-strong identification would be an error, and one which would relegate to secondary importance a work which I believe deserves a much more serious appreciation. To run the risk of stating the obvious, A Man from the North is a novel, in the fullest meaning of that term. Firstly, the characters step off the page as fully formed individuals, negotiating life’s challenges as independent beings; secondly, the details of their lives, such as Richard’s lonely walks through London at night, throw light on themes that Bennett had chosen to study – self-realisation and the conflict between domesticity and artistic creation being but two; and thirdly, it provides a conclusion that allows the reader a satisfactory emotional release from the internal conflict experienced by Richard as he debates his future.
A Man from the North shows that from the very start of his writing career, Bennett could enter deep into a character’s psyche. As a result we get to know Richard very well. We see how he adopts the role of a writer rather than the substance; he dismisses Adeline, the decidedly middlebrow niece of Mr Aked and, called back to a funeral in Bursley, he takes a circuitous journey through the town to avoid the “inevitable banal” conversations. Towards the end of the novel, Richard talks to his friend Jenkins and the conversation turns to women:
“What about Miss Roberts?” Richard questioned.
“Oh! She’s off. She’s a bit too old for me, you know. She must be twenty-six.”
“Look here, my old boy,” said Richard, good humouredly. “I don’t believe you ever had anything to do with her at all. It was nothing but boasting.”
“What will you bet I can’t prove it to you?” Jenkins retorted, putting out his chin, an ominous gesture with him.
“I’ll bet you half-a-crown—no, a shilling.”
But we should be wary of dismissing him as merely typical of those young men eager to impress. Not long before this conversation, it is Richard, looking at the couples in the London streets, who asks himself, “Of the million of women in London, why was he not permitted to know a few?” Many men remember with varying degrees of embarrassment and exasperation the poses they struck as young men, unsure of themselves and prey to banal truths hidden behind empty slogans. Bennett, possibly with his own early years in London in mind, does not, even in a short novel, paint life using broad strokes.
The novel is not perfect. Characters enter and leave with little in the way of explanation; scenes, such as those in the funeral in Bursley seem oddly truncated; Bennett exploits his omnipotence as author to explain rather than describe. But no novel, I believe, should be perfect. If it flows effortlessly like water through your fingers, what lasting impact can it have on you? The impact on me of A Man from the North was noticeable. Richard’s decision at the end of the novel, essentially an adoption of another role, this one domestic in nature, left me wondering what I would have said to him? Do you settle for being head of a family on a regular wage and live comfortably in the London suburbs, or take the risk and find out who you really are first? There are few novels I have read that have left me as quietly thoughtful as did A Man from the North.
Bennett himself wrote in his journal that he made one sovereign profit on the novel and it was this experience that convinced him of the need to write commercially successful novels. The implication being that serious novels did not pay. Bennett was, I believe, being disingenuous. He may have transformed himself into the popular novelist of his day but his honesty, intellect and interest in people frequently shone through even the most sensational or light-hearted scene, just as they do in this novel.
Arnold Bennett: A Man from the North (House of Stratus 2008), ISBN 9780755115969. RRP £7.99.