Oscar Wilde is said to have told a story about finding himself in a group of people talking about boredom.footnote1 Everyone had something to say; Wilde was the last to speak, ‘When I am bored’, he said, ‘I take out a good novel, sit down by the fire and gaze into it.’ In fact, the two things go well together: a blazing fire in the hearth and an open novel. And since we have such a novel in our hands—Arnold Bennett’s greatest work has only now been translated into German, twenty-five years after it first appeared—we shall gaze into the fire without closing the book.footnote2 No one is so unimaginative as to be able to stare into a fire without some thought occurring to him. We shall see why the spectacle it presents is a metaphor for the novel itself.
The reader of novels differs from those who immerse themselves in a poem or follow the course of a play. Above all, he is alone, unlike the member of an audience, but also unlike someone reading a poem. The former has subsided into the crowd and shares its response, while the latter is willing to turn into a partner and lend his voice to the poem. The novel reader is alone and remains so for a good while. Moreover, in his solitude he takes possession of his material in a more jealous and exclusive way than the other two. He is ready to appropriate wholly what he reads, to consume it down to the very last drop. He destroys and devours its contents as fire consumes the logs in the hearth. The tension that pervades the book resembles the gust of air that causes the fire to flare up and fans the dancing flames.
This metaphor reveals a different picture to the one usually evoked in discussions of the novel as a genre. Such discussions, in Germany at least, begin with Friedrich Schlegel. The fact that Schlegel is alive only to the artistic form of the novel as it is to be found in Cervantes or Goethe, rather than to the broader tradition of epic narrative, is not without its consequences. That the novel shares this tradition with the story is most evident in the writings of the English: Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Stevenson and Kipling are primarily storytellers in their novels. Through them, stories flow into the book and then flow out as stories once again. In contrast, Flaubert, who represents the opposite principle, was in the habit of reading his sentences out loud to himself. The rhythmic perfection that he constantly tested in this way encloses the reader inside his grandiose works, sealing him within them. Sentence is joined on to sentence here like bricks in a wall. This was all that was needed to create the cult of ‘construction’, with its echo of sonorous ‘prosody’—all very much in furtherance of an ambitious form of impotence. But if the novel is an edifice, it looks less like an architect’s design than the pile of logs the servant girl has heaped up in the grate. The aim is not that it should keep forever but that it should burn brightly.
Bennett has compressed the events of over five decades into a single space. Within that space he loosely builds up the lives of three generations. These three generations rest peacefully on the ashes of those who went before them, tradesmen living in the Five Towns. In the course of these five decades the family line has become concentrated in two sisters, the younger of whom will die without issue, while the elder will leave only one charming but spoilt offspring to inherit the estates of the two women. The Five Towns, where they have their cradles and then later their graves,
are unique and indispensable. From the north of the county right down to the south they alone stand for civilization, applied science, organized manufacture, and the century—until you come to Wolverhampton. They are unique and indispensable because you cannot drink tea out of a teacup without the aid of the Five Towns; because you cannot eat a meal in decency without the aid of the Five Towns. For this the architecture of the Five Towns is an architecture of ovens and chimneys; for this its atmosphere is as black as its mud; for this it burns and smokes all night, so that Longshaw has been compared to hell.footnote3
Bennett does not open up this hell in the same way as Dickens exposes the early industrial hell of London in The Old Curiosity Shop. The lives of his two sisters are sealed off from it. If he does not say this in so many words, he does show it metaphorically by making them grow up in a draper’s shop, for which they were both predestined from the outset. At what cost the younger sister avoids this destiny, and how very closely the force that tears her away from the shop resembles the force that ultimately undermines it! For towards the end of the novel, the town in which her ancestors built up their business begins to change its face. The world in which work and pleasure balanced each other out—which made the business profitable and life worth living—is dying out. Big business and the trusts start to cast their shadow over the town. At the beginning of the century competitors come onto the scene, with posters, gramophones and knockdown prices, and force the old shopkeepers onto the defensive. The sisters’ lives are lived in changing times. One, the older one, remains loyal to what was tried and tested, takes over the shop, gives birth to a son and keeps up the house into which she welcomes her sister, who returns home after thirty years.
This house has a story of its own. It is the womb in which the family wealth was incubated. Starting out as three dwellings, it developed over the years and decades into a single labyrinth in which shop front, workshop and living quarters have melted down into a single building, which provides little comfort but offers all the more convenience to habits that have become immutable. This house is the subject of one of the narrative magic tricks in which the novel is so rich. Despite all the blows of fate that await the two women in it, the house is basically nothing but the setting for the lives of two sisters at play, and then of two old women; lives that are strangely intertwined and difficult to disentangle. ‘The sense of the vast-obscure of those regions which began at the top of the kitchen steps and ended in black corners of larders or abruptly in the common dailiness of Brougham Street, a sense which Constance and Sophia had acquired in infancy, remained with them almost unimpaired as they grew old.’footnote4