Bennett, Drabble, Shapcott, Modernism

There is an excellent article by Margaret Drabble in this week’s TLS, in which she restates the case for reading Arnold Bennett.

She knows that she is up against Virginia Woolf, who in essays wonderfully convenient for teachers who don’t want to bother their students with too much reading, stigmatised Bennett and Wells as the opposite of modernist, mere describers of appearances, telling you about things, not people.  Margaret Drabble therefore begins by showing Bennett’s receptiveness to modernist thinking, and his early championing of post-impressionist painters like Gaugin and Cezanne. She could have added his early spotting of T.S.Eliot. He heard Eliot give a reading of ‘The Hippopotamus’ (in I think 1917) and immediately recognised that this was a major talent.

She then turns her attention to the excellent new editions of The Price of Love and The Pretty Lady, edited by John Shapcott and published by Churnet Valley Books, and is able to show not only that these are both very good novels, but also that  if the aesthetic of modernism means ‘fragmentation, glimpses and discontinuities’, Bennett was in his way as modernist as Woolf, and before she started writing fiction.

This is well said, and worth saying, as is her praise for John Shapcott’s introductions, and for the energy that he has put into his stint as Chairman of the Arnold Bennett Society (which I tried to indicate in my report from the most enjoyable Stoke conference a couple of months back).

My only quibble would be with the use of the word ‘modernism’ – one that I try to avoid because it’s like God or ‘socialism; it means so many different things to different people that you can hardly begin using it without being at cross-purposes with your reader. In literature it often refers to the experimental writing  produced in the twenties for  coterie audiences, outside the publishing mainstream. Joyce, Lewis, Woolf – all in their way estimable writers. But academics have sometimes puffed them to imply that the virtues of their work are not to be found elsewhere. I read one critic who remarked of Mary Postgate that it was so subtle and ambiguous that it was almost modernist – as though there were not ambiguities and subtleties galore in the rest of Kipling.

If you want ‘fragmentation, glimpses and discontinuities’, they are easily found in pre-modernist literature. The modernists are frequently contrasted with the solid Victorians, but if it’s fragmentation you want, read the astonishing writings of that uber-Victorian Thomas Carlyle. Or Dickens. For glimpses and discontinuities, and a bravura treatment of them,  look at the early chapters of The Tale of Two Cities (before the plot takes over, to the novel’s detriment).

But even though I don’t think Bennett needs to be sold on any terms but his own, the demonstration that The Pretty Lady is a novel rich in cultural reference, and attuned to the syncopations of wartime London, is well worth doing. Read Margaret Drabble’s  article, and read John Shapcott’s editions.

(For a while I’ve been meaning to do my own full review of the new Pretty Lady edition, but other things have got in the way. It will arrive eventually, though.)

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