Arnold Bennett in a new light


Flaubert thought Stoke-on-Trent was called Stoke-on-Trend, a happy delusion which would have amused Arnold Bennett. Bennett admired Balzac, Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant and Emile Zola, and wrote to André Gide in 1920 that he suspected the French tended to despise English fiction as “rather barbaric, lacking in finesse and civilized breadth”. (In correspondence with Gide, he displayed a tendency to defend his own artistic credentials and aspirations to modernity. With other correspondents, he sometimes adopted a worldlier stance, though he never lapsed into the philistinism which some of his comic characters so triumphantly display.) French realism and its successor naturalism were, when Bennett was young, the avant-garde, and some of their freedoms were deeply shocking to what he called the BP (the British Public). The BP lagged far behind the French. It is startling to discover that Bennett was asked to remove the line “I am going to have a baby” from the serialization of one of his later novels in 1922. It is true that Flaubert and Zola had run into serious trouble with censorship, but not quite of this simplistic nature. It was Bennett’s misfortune that during his lifetime realism came to be seen not as radical but as reactionary. Its groundbreaking efforts were dismissed en bloc by some younger critics, as a self-conscious modernism began to push towards the centre stage. Bennett was a very trend-conscious man, both for good and ill, and much disliked the notion of being classed as one of the old guard. He preferred the young.

more from Margaret Drabble at the TLS here.