There was an enjoyable programme about Arnold Bennett on Radio 4 yesterday (still available on iPlayer). Deborah Moggach and Giles Brandreth gave a lively account of his life and talked enthusiastically about his novels, agreeing that The Old Wives’ Tale was the best (which is fair enough, though I have an especial fondness for Riceyman Steps and The Pretty Lady – and for The Card, too).
I’d disagree with them on just a couple of points. First of all, they said that nobody reads Bennett any more. Not quite true, as can be seen from the Reading 1900-1950 discussions of his novels. And from the conferences organised by the Arnold Bennett Society.
Then they seemed to think it a mystery why Bennett refused the offer of a knighthood. I don’t think it’s a mystery at all. Plenty of other writers (such as Kipling) refused honours at the time, taking the view that writers should be independent of the state, and that such official endorsement might limit their freedom to be controversial. The literary knights of the period tend to be the second-rankers (Pinero, Barrie, Hall Caine).
Bennett had an additional reason for not accepting a knighthood. His 1918 comedy, The Title, a great success on the London stage, had been an attack on the abuses of the honours system, targeting especially the distribution of honours for political purposes. the play contained speeches like this:
Only the simple-minded believe that Honours are given to honour. Honours are given to save the life of the Government. Hence the Honours List. Examine the Honours List and you can instantly tell how the Government feels in its inside. When the Honours List is full of rascals, millionaires, and—er—chumps, you may be quite sure that the Government is dangerously ill.
After writing a play whose hero argues that to accept an honour would be dishonourable (because he feels that his own name has been added to the list merely because it would look bad if all the proposed honorees were crooks or shysters) Bennett was hardly in a position where he could comfortably accept a gong.