Arnold Bennett, women and the Western Front

In Arnold Bennett’s Imperial Palace (1931) the central character, Evelyn, is having a fling with Gracie, the impulsive daughter of a millionaire, in Paris. In a huge  department store they watch the spectacle of “half the women, bareheaded and in black, helping the other half, hatted and in colours, to adorn their persons for the allurement of absent males: while at broad, sloping desks men were writing out bills and receiving cash, cash, endless cash, and in the parcels-enclosures girls and boys were tying up parcels, parcels, parcels.”

Gracie comes out with the rather surprising comment:

“There are too many of us. Women, I mean. And we have to fight. It reminds me of the world, this shop does: too many women, and all fighting for a niche and trying to stretch ten francs into twenty to make the best of themselves. I can see them all naked. I can see into their naked minds, and all their minds are the same. But I haven’t seen a happy face. Every face I’ve seen is anxious. Do you know what this place is – it’s the Western Front.”

“What do you know of the Western Front, my dear? You aren’t old enough to have been a Waac.”

“Don’t I know! I’ve read ‘All Quiet,’ and I’ve read ‘Not so Quiet.’ Not know the Western Front! Why! In a few years, ten, twenty, it’ll be only people as young as I am, and younger, who will know what the Western Front was. And I tell you this is the real Western Front to-day.”

She had suddenly fallen into a new mood, and Evelyn could feel that she wanted to envelop him also in the mood. He resisted.

I find it hard to guess what Bennett is getting at here. Gracie  keenly sympathises with the efforts of her fellow-females in the struggle for sexual survival (she has few problems in this area herself, being very rich and very attractive, but has shown her solidarity with less fortunate sisters by taking care of her unmarried maid when she falls pregnant) – but a comparison with the horrors of the Western Front seems grossly exaggerated, to the extent that many of Bennett’s readers would surely have found it distasteful, even crass. Bennett gives us few clues as to how we should take this, though. Gracie has been presented as an independent woman with fierce whims, and ideas that break down gender barriers. Bennett here shows us that she is up-to-date in her choice of reading, since ‘Not So Quiet…’ had only recently been published.

I’d like to read this as a comment on the fevered prose of ‘Not So Quiet…’, which was presented as an authentic war memoir of female ambulance drivers, by ‘Helen Zenna Smith’ (the name of the central character), but in fact was a skilful pastiche by Evadne Price, too young to have been involved in the War. Gracie is exaggerating the sufferings of women, and is doing so because she has taken on the emotional tone of these texts, with their constant stress on victimhood. Evelyn, who had been an officer in the A.S.C. during the War, and had been ‘invalided out’, resists being ‘enveloped’ by this mood, and the subject is changed.

Imperial Palace as a whole is highly enjoyable reading, and its six-hundred-odd pages kept me happily involved on long train journeys during my holiday last week. It is one of Bennett’s celebrations of capitalism. Evelyn is the highly skilled manager of London’s best luxury hotel. The novel takes him through romantic complications, with Gracie and with a more down-to-earth woman. The most interesting parts, however, are to do with the running of the hotel. Bennett takes his reader to pretty well every part of the huge organisation – to the kitchens, the laundry, the workshop, even with the meat-buyer to Smithfield Market. He communicates the pleasure to be found in running a huge enterprise, and the dangers that come from predatory financiers and others. Bennett makes clear the ruthlessness needed to run such an enterprise with total efficiency. Employees who fall short have to be summarily dismissed (though Evelyn tries always to act with humanity). The strains of the enterprise lead to outbursts, resignations, and even a suicide.

At the end, Evelyn succeeds both in business and in love, but is unsure whether the woman in his life, or “the perfecting of luxury hotels throughout Europe” should be his life’s work. He ponders:

If both, which was the more important? Were luxury hotels sociologically justifiable? He didn’t know. He couldn’t decide. He knew merely that he was going straight on. He said to himself: “There’s a lot of things in this world you’ll never get the hang of. And only idiots try to.”

The question of sociological justification is left to the reader. The Imperial Palace is shown as a huge monument to luxury, almost monstrous in its extravagant splendour. It provides a vast amount of employment, however, for a staff not only committed to the enterprise, but possessed of a full sense their own importance to it. The hotel is a source of self-esteem and pride, and its employees identify with its fortunes totally. Bennett does not shirk the fact of the vast difference between Evelyn the director and the slaveys of the kitchen and laundry, but he does show them as united in a common enterprise.
A novel well worth reading.


One Comment

  1. Posted October 1, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I found an interesting link the other day when researching for a novel I’m writing. It’s about women warriors. Although anecdotal it seems that women did more than shop 🙂

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