An Amazon parcel arrived yesterday with the new volume of Arnold Bennett’s Uncollected Short Stories 1892-1932, edited by John Shapcott.
I’ve done no more than sample the collection so far, but I can already strongly recommend it.
This book makes you realise how prolific and how various Bennett was. The stories are those that he never got round to including in his own short-story collections – some probably because they were rather slight, some because they were topical pieces that dated quickly, and some probably because he regarded them as prentice work.
A good example of the topical stories is “The White Feather” of 1914, which I have written about previously in this blog. Very much a story of its day, satirising the “Mafficks” who supported the War effort loudly, but made sure that their support was at minimal cost to themselves, and the strident young women who handed men white feathers without knowing the circumstances that kept them out of uniform, this is well worth reprinting for its historical interest.
The stories that I think I am going to enjoy most are the early ones written (often pseudonymously) for Woman magazine, where Bennett was first assistant editor, and later editor. Of the ones that I have read so far, “The Clapham Theosophical Society”(1895) is a funny satire on the New Agers of the fin de siecle, and the kind of nonsense that was believed by Yeats and his associates. “An Astral Engagement” also plays with theosophical notions about astral bodies. (Since her alternative body is pursuing an independent existence, a rather mischievous young American girl becomes engaged to two men simultaneously.) Bennett wrote this one under the pseudonym of “Sarah Volatile”.
There are excursions into genres that one does not associate with Bennett. A squib at the expense of Wilde and the Aesthetics, for instance, and a rather enjoyable Christmas story for children, in which all the children of a London street go on a dreamlike adventure together, in a bus without a driver, to become the Fire Brigade rescuing Santa and his store of presents from a burning building.
Editor John Shapcott has not only provided an introduction that is well up to his usual standard, but has included many of the original illustrations that accompanied these stories in their original magazine publication. The Woman stories were mostly unillustrated originally, but included here are a couple of the advertisements that would have been part of the original context of publication, and the magazine’s masthead, which tells us a good deal about the paper’s readers and their aspirations.
As I said, I’ve only read a few of the stories so far. I may well write about some of the others later.