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?”
“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.