Arnold Bennett and a knighthood

arnold bennett

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.

6 Comments

  1. Cathy Kawalek
    Posted April 30, 2014 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think they let those of us across the pond listen to iPlayer so did you notice if they mentioned him being an editor of a newspaper or magazine called ‘Woman?’ Thanks!

    • Posted April 30, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

      They did indeed – and pointed out that women’s magazines often provided a first step into the literary world for young men of promise – citing Oscar Wilde as an example.

      • Cathy Kawalek
        Posted April 30, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

        Thank you! Mrs. Peel cites him as a mentor in her autobiography

    • Nemo
      Posted May 1, 2014 at 1:33 am | Permalink

      Cathy,

      Actually you can listen to BBC audio here in the US (you can’t access BBC video, though).

  2. Posted May 1, 2014 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    A very nice listen, though I was taken aback when the declined knighthood was discussed. I think you’re spot in writing that the literary knights of the period tend to be the second-rankers. Sir Gilbert Parker and Sir Charles G.D. Roberts are the first names that come to this Canadian’s mind.

  3. richard eastbourne
    Posted May 2, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting the link to the Radio 4 programme devoted to Arnold Bennett. It did well in giving a sense of what is so attractive about his work. Hieing off to Project Gutenberg on the strength of it, I discovered that Bennett’s ‘The Human Machine’ has currently the second-most number of downloads after ‘How to Live on 24 Hours a Day’. It was published in 1908 – the same year as the Old Wives Tale – and is typically very amusing (in case anyone should fear a doomy H.G. Wellsian exploration of human evolution).


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