The Pretty Lady / Angels

At first, I couldn’t think why Arnold Bennett had done it . In the middle of the realistic narrative (about Christine, a French prostitute in wartime London) you suddenly get this conversation (Christine is asking a an alcoholic officer about his experiences):

“Have you been in the retreat?”

“I was.”

“And the angels? Have you seen them?”

He paused, and then said with solemnity:

“Was it an angel I saw?… I was lying doggo by myself in a hole, and bullets whizzing over me all the time. It was nearly dark, and a figure in white came and stood by the hole; he stood quite still and the German bullets went on just the same. Suddenly I saw he was wounded in the hand; it was bleeding. I said to him: ‘You’re hit in the hand.’ ‘No,’ he said–he had a most beautiful voice–‘that is an old wound. It has reopened lately. I have another wound in the other hand.’ And he showed me the other hand, and that was bleeding too. Then the firing ceased, and he pointed, and although I’d eaten nothing at all that day and was dead-beat, I got up and ran the way he pointed, and in five minutes I ran into what remained of my unit.”

The officer’s sonorous tones ceased; he shut his lips tightly, as though clinching the testimony, and the life of the bedroom was suspended in absolute silence.

The angels of Mons? Did he really expect the novel-reading public of 1918 to take this nonsense seriously? He gives no authorial comment one way or the other.

While writing the novel he had consulted a folklorist, George Whale, who had made a collection of soldiers’ superstitions. Bennett’s journal records that he found Whale’s collection interesting, and doubtless this is where he learnt about the soldiers’ mascots that play a part in the novel.

I think what he was trying to do was say that the soldier has to live in a totally different mental environment from the civilians of the novel. They are rational (or maybe just cynical) humans, with an eye for their own self-interest. The soldier has to live in a different moral and spiritual universe, where death and pain are constant presences. Bennett endorses the superstition no more than he endorses the soldier’s alcoholism, but he sees that both might be necessary to a man in extreme circumstances. Only Christine, the refugee prostitute, understands. She too lives a precarious life, and her sentimental reverence for the Virgin of the VII Sorrows is her way of dealing with it.

The Catholics hated the book, and some of them tried to get Bennett prosecuted because they were upset by it.

3 Comments

  1. Leslie Martin
    Posted October 12, 2006 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Might I suggest that Bennett may have been letting his poetic imagination give expression to his own belief that civilization is no more than a veneer on irrational human nature? Is it more reasonable to shoot at other people than to have visions? The bullets were real enough, but is that a reasonable thing to have going on above one’s head? Traverse from bullets to Bibles: are either of them now reasonable? No wonder Catholics didn’t like him. Should it be only cynics who do? I hope not!

  2. Gwilym
    Posted November 30, 2006 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I think you are underestimating the furor surrounding the Angels of Mons. It was a big topic of conversation and media coverage with the pro and anti side battling it out and the pro side had many church figures on it and it was taken very seriously indeed by some as Bennett was well aware. The Angels were seen as proof of the justice of the allied cause. If you were in the Retreat any civilian would have asked you about the Angels. David Clark’s book is well worth reading on the subject.

  3. David
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Is it not possible perhaps, that Bennett means the reader to infer that the “figure in white” is Jesus Christ and the reference to the old wounds in both hands that have reopned lately, are a reference to the stigmata?

    The officer character questions at the begining of the paragraph whether it was an angel but leaves the question un-answerd, or answered depending upon your interpretation, by his account of the figure who appeared to him.

    There is a clear reference of Christines’ Roman Catholic belief values in a previous paragrah where she “was mystically happy in the ennui of serving the miraculous envoy of the Virgin.” as a description of how she reconciles herself to the life she leads.

    I think I can eee why the use of this religious symbolism, which is very rich and capable of bearing several layers of meanings, may have upset some Roman Cahtolic readers or authorities.


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