Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett

Last year I read The Grand Babylon Hotel which was a fun mystery by Arnold Bennett and left me wanting to try one of his more literary works. I then added Clayhanger to my Classics Club list so it seemed a good choice for the Turn of the Century Salon.

Arnold Bennett 1867 - 1931
Clayhanger is the first of four novels which are collectively known as The Clayhanger Family. The books are set in the '5 Towns'......a fictionalised version of the six towns of 'the Potteries' in Staffordshire, which later amalgamated into the city of Stoke-on-Trent and the place where Arnold Bennett spent his first twenty-one years.

The story begins on the day seventeen-year-old Edwin Clayhanger leaves school. A gentle, intelligent boy he dreams of being an architect but also knows and worries that his father has other expectations of him.

Darius Clayhanger grew up in the 1830's in extreme poverty. As a seven-year-old he 'became a man' - sent out to labour for 12 hours a day at the Potteries to help support his family but when his father is blacklisted the result is the workhouse known locally as the Bastille.

" And they were put into a cellar and stripped and washed and dressed in other people's clothes, and then separated, amid tears. And Darius was pitched into a large crowd of boys, all clothed like himself. He now understood the reason for shame; it was because he could have no distinctive clothes of his own, because he had somehow lost his identity."

The family is rescued by Mr Shushions, the Sunday School superintendent and Darius goes on to become a respected businessman but he can never let go of the 'boy from the Bastille.' He regards everything in his life, his business, his home, the food on his table, his ability to keep his son in school until his teens, as a miracle. And the biggest mistake he makes is never telling his children about his past.

To Edwin and his sisters their father is domineering, miserly and a bully. The sensitive Edwin doesn't stand a chance and dutifully enters the family steam printing business where he is for years kept overworked and underpaid, inwardly rebellious but incapable of acting against his father.

" As he stood furious and impotent in the hall, he thought: "When you're old, and I've got you" - he clenched his fists and his teeth - " when I've got you and you can't help yourself, by God it will be my turn."

That time comes and the years of Darius' ill-health and death and Edwin's anger giving way to a mixture of 'irritation and compassion' is a very moving account of the role reversal that happens as a parent declines.

I enjoyed Clayhanger very much although I do understand why many readers find it dull. Arnold Bennett loved the 'ordinariness of existence' and that is what he writes about. The provincial bourgeoisie going about their daily lives.....what they ate and what they wore, what they believed and what they thought and the influence on their lives of family, church and local society. For anyone interested in Victorian social history it's wonderful reading.
At times the detail is a bit too much and at times it is a bit dreary and one longs for the wit and satire found in other provincial tales like Middlemarch or Anthony Trollope's novels but overall very satisfying.

Clayhanger was published in 1910 but is set in the 1880 - 90's and Arnold Bennett writes like a late Victorian author. One of the old school who came under attack from the new kids like Virginia Woolf with whom he had an ongoing public sparring match in articles and essays. This literary debate makes fascinating reading and the entries in their personal diaries show there was no real ill-will between them. When Arnold Bennett died of cholera in 1931 Virginia wrote in her diary..... Arnold Bennett died last night: which leaves me sadder than I should have supposed. 


  1. I am planning to read this as my 1910 choice for the century of books challenge, I've had my orange Penguin copy for far too long so it'll be good to actually read it at last. :)

  2. I don't mind a slow moving novel, particularly when there is a focus on family dynamics. I think I would enjoy this series.