The Pretty Lady (Churnet Valley Books, £14.95. ISBN 1904546689)
John Shapcott’s excellent new edition of The Pretty Lady raises the question why this extraordinary book has not been generally recognised as one of the most original and penetrating twentieth-century novels. Even Bennett enthusiasts like John Carey and John Lucas have been a bit sniffy about it. Recently, though, Margaret Drabble has written in the TLS about the novel as ‘a “feverish” engagement with the violence and sexuality of modernity’, and Shapcott’s introduction to the new edition (whose text is a facsimile of Cassell’s nicely printed 1918 first edition) provides an excellent analysis of the book’s visual symbolism, in a way that shows how closely worked and considered the book is beneath its easy readable surface.
It’s the readability that has told against the book among twentieth-century academics, of course. Bennett the best-seller (The Pretty Lady sold 30,000 copies within six months) offers little to those who make their living by explication, unlike his arch-critic Woolf; untangling her gossamer complexities has made many a career.
The subject-matter of The Pretty Lady was what caused problems for the book at first. It is the story of a French prostitute, Christine, who has escaped from wartime Ostend, and set herself up in business in London. Though a refugee, she demands no pity; she is self-sufficient, practical and realistic.
Bennett began writing the novel in May 1917, when the nation was in the throes of a moral panic on the subject, helped on its way by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote this letter to The Times:
Sir – Is it not possible in any way to hold in check the vile women who at present prey upon and poison our soldiers in London? A friend of mine who is a Special Constable in a harlot-haunted district has described to me how these harpies carry off the lonely soldiers to their rooms, make them drunk with the vile liquor which they keep there, and finally inoculate them, as likely as not, with one or other of those diseases which, thanks to the agitation of well-meaning fools, have had free trade granted to them amongst us? (The Times, Feb 6, 1917)
A few days later, a news article in The Times reported:
Dealing with young women of known disorderly character for importuning soldiers in the streets, Mr. Paul Taylor, at Westminster yesterday, said he was very glad to see Sir Conan Doyle’s letter in the Press characterising persons like the prisoners as enemies to their country, putting temptation in the way of young men, with horrible consequences. No fines would meet this class of case, and he sentenced the prisoners to a month’s hard servitude. (The Times, Feb 11, 1917)
The Criminal Law Amendment Act and the Venereal Diseases Act of 1917 were responses to the problem, and the parliamentary debates about these contained language very like Doyle’s crude misogynist stereotyping, as when Col Sir Hamar Greenwood reflected on the scandal of seven thousand ‘clean Canadian boys’ needing venereal treatment after a stay in England:
During a recent visit to the Dominion I met many fathers and mothers whose boys had been sent back to Canada debilitated and ruined for life because they had been enmeshed by some of the harpies who are still allowed to go very near the camps, and especially in this great Metropolis, and again and again these parents have said to me, ‘We do not mind our boys dying on the field of battle for old England, but to think that we sent our sons to England to come back to us ruined in health, and a disgrace to us, to them, and to the country, is something that the Home Country should never ask us to bear.’ (House of Commons Debates, 23 April 1917)
Bennett’s Christine is not a harpy preying on innocent soldiers, but a canny businesswoman, doing the best she can with the opportunities life has given her. Her main relationship is with G.J.Hoape, a wealthy man above the military age; when they meet on the Empire promenade their communication is a matter of subtle hints between sophisticates. Is she exploiting him? Is he exploiting her? Bennett leaves it to the reader to decide.
Throughout the novel, Bennett questions the simple moral dualisms found in Doyle’s letter. The prostitute may be ‘the professed enemy of society’, but society’s official protectors, the police, demand a bribe to let her continue her business. As for those who set up as society’s moral guardians, Bennett shows them as using the war to advertise the nobility of their own characters. There is Lady Queenie Paulle, for example, who ‘had few rivals as a war-worker’, because she attended so many societies and sat on so many committees, and had, Bennett sardonically notes, ‘done practically everything that a patriotic girl could do for the war, except, perhaps, join a Voluntary Aid Detachment and wash dishes and scrub floors for fifteen hours a day and thirteen and a half days a fortnight.’ One of her committees, in charge of a French hospital, assumes the right to moralistically discuss the private lives of doctors and nurses, with an interest clearly shown as lubricious.
John Shapcott’s introduction shows how Bennett in this novel presented a disturbing image of wartime society, fragmented, uneasy and divided. There are references to industrial unrest and to social injustices, and hints that the British press is less than frank about the war. (Hints that are the more remarkable when one considers that at the time of the book’s publication, Bennett held an important post in the Ministry of Information). Those in authority are mostly either self-deceiving or corrupt, while there is immense sympathy for those doing the essential work of war, the female munition-makers and the soldiers.
The soldiers in this book, however, are neither the innocents of Doyle’s fantasy, nor the calm and responsible action-men of wartime cliché. The first soldiers that we hear of, at a funeral service, and as the subject of an official telegram, are dead; living ones are enigmatic. When Hoape meets some old friends on leave, they avoid speaking about the War, and channel the conversation into trivialities, making both him and the reader aware of the urgency of their need for distraction before they leave again for the front.
The most important military character is the anonymous officer first seen fighting with another soldier on the Empire promenade, and later found lying in a drunken stupor, snoring on Christine’s bed. Above all, he is needy, and Christine supplies what he wants – not sexually, but as someone to talk to, so that he can unburden himself in confession. Significantly, he is irrational and superstitious. Christine asks him 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 text’s realistic narrative is disturbed by this irruption of the supernatural; the silence that follows it is also an authorial silence. Bennett does not tell us whether he gives any credence to the story of the figure with the stigmata, or whether readers should.
This association of this soldier with the supernatural (which could signify his contact with experience beyond the reach of prosaic civilians, or could merely reflect the extremity of his need) recurs months later at a tedious night club, when the recitation of a poem by Poe precedes Christine’s hallucination of a voice calling her name. Running randomly through the streets, she finds her officer, now reduced to the ranks because of his drunkenness, and puts herself at his service again. Bennett implies that people like her, nearer to the harsh realities of life, can do more for a soldier than any of the proliferating committees and charities can. The soldier and the prostitute are both outsiders, and Bennett links them by this narrative of the uncanny that is outside the conceptual range of an otherwise naturalistic story. To research this part of the book, Bennett consulted George Whale, a folklorist. He wrote in his journal: ‘Dined with George Whale at the N.L.C. And in his great ugly sitting room took what I wanted from his large collection of notes on war superstitions for my novel. His notes were extremely interesting.’)
At the end of the novel, there is a crucial scene where Hoape, who thinks he has exclusive rights to Christine, sees her in the streets, talking to one soldier after another. He does not realise that she is searching for news of the soldier who needs her, and whom she is helping back to the War. He assumes she is soliciting, and decides to have nothing more to do with her, thus condemning her once again to the difficult life of a common prostitute. Like Doyle and the parliamentary moralists, Hoape, himself far from innocent, presumes to make a judgment about the relationship of the soldier and the prostitute on the basis of appearances, assuming the worst and without knowing all the facts.
As A. S. Wallace wrote in his review for the Manchester Guardian, Christine has, ‘despite an analysis of the stratagems and devices of her professional career that is Maupassant-like in its ruthlessness… a humanity that shines in contrast with this world of humbug and hysteria.’ The prostitute and the soldier together become a judgment on the wartime society that passes judgment on them. The committees of the rich and powerful who populate the book pride themselves on doing good for the victims of war, while benefiting themselves from the power and status that do-gooding confers on them. She, meanwhile, is a refugee who does not claim charity or victim status, but copes efficiently for herself. This was not a message that commended itself to some of the book’s first readers. The Star reasserted Doyle’s moralistic contrast between soldiers and courtesans:
Our boys are being martyred by the millions. Hearts are being lacerated by incalculable sorrows. This is no time to regale our hurt minds with glimpses of the nether world. We are not in the mood for idylls of the promenade and pastorals of the pavement.
Bennett’s point is that the ‘nether world’ with its acknowledgment of human frailty, may be more use to a damaged soldier than the sermonizing of those above him.
The book aroused protests which belatedly caused it to be banned by the libraries. Among the strongest complaints were those from Catholics offended by the portrayal of Christine as a sincere member of their religion. The Catholic Federation wrote threatening prosecution; nothing seems to have come of this, but as Kinley Roby writes: ‘It was the kind of letter that made publishers very nervous, and Bennett was sufficiently disturbed by the letter to send a copy of The Pretty Lady to Attorney General F.E.Smith to forestall any police action against the book.’ Bennett’s establishment connections helped him to outface criticism in ways that a less well-situated writer would have found difficult. As he wrote to Geoffrey Madan: ‘Various attempts have been made to suppress it. Smiths, after doing exceedingly well out of it, have decided to ban it. Boots of course won’t touch it. […] However, I have influences in high places which ought to be able to counteract such moves. The book sells like hot cakes.’
After the War, the book doubtless suffered from the general reaction against wartime fiction; the early twenties mostly wanted to look forward. When they read novels about the War, they were less interested in books analyzing wartime society than in books like Hutchinson’s phenomenal best-seller If Winter Comes, which explained the War in a way that explored its meaning for the post-war world. Even apart from the assault on Bennett’s reputation by modernists such as Woolf, the subject of The Pretty Lady was not one to endear it to the moralistically Leavisite generation of critics of English fiction. As Margaret Drabble wrote in her Bennett biography, ‘the extreme calm with which Christine, G.J. and the author accept her profession is unusual in English fiction, to say the least.’ On the other hand, Bennett’s treatment of the question is too sane to have attracted the Foucauldians.
With luck, John Shapcott’s new edition, with its clear and attractive reproduction of the original typography, and its keenly analytical introduction, will do something to alert new readers to this remarkable novel.