The Statue (1908) by Eden Philpotts and Arnold Bennett links in a way to the ‘Future War’ fiction of the pre-1914 era, since the plot is overshadowed by the possibility of crisis and conflict between France and Germany. Both countries are vying to provide a huge loan to the Sultan of Morocco, with a rivalry so intense that it could lead to war:
Everybody knew that France hotly resented Germany’s financial intrusiveness. Everybody knew that France was allowing the semi-official business, competition to proceed out of sheer diplomatic discretion, and that if she were worsted in the rivalry of negotiations with the Sultan, she would at once formally declare her suzerainty over the Sultan. Everybody knew that if France did this, Germany would choose to consider herself insulted and would go to war.
Two multi-millionaire financiers, Courlander and Crampiron, are negotiating on behalf of the two nations, and the action begins when Courlander has invited all the great personages of England to a celebration at his mansion, at which he unveils a monstrous two-hundred feet high statue:
an heroic, a gigantic statue, puissant, formidable, and glorious — magnificently shining in its whiteness at the summit of the avenue of elms. It represented a woman, classically robed, and with a pointed crown on her head. Her right arm carried a sword; her left, with one finger outstretched, held the Jovian thunderbolt to her tremendous bosom. Hope seemed to reside in that wide-eyed, expectant face, and the attitude was one of pressing forward — pressing forward with a resistless and relentless force.
Courlander reveals that he has obtained the contract for – but then he is found murdered.
Much intrigue follows, with sensational trials, prison escapes and plots of revenge. In addition, Courlander’s son is in love with Crampiron’s daughter. It is a rich stew.
I gather that the usual theory is that Philpotts provided the plot while Bennett did the actual writing. It seems to me, though, that the style is very changeable throughout the novel, and I suspect two hands did the writing.
It’s very much a plot-driven novel, and most of the characters are ciphers or stereotypes (There is even an inscrutable Chinaman.) There is a fat policeman who seems promising, but he is never developed. The one exception to this dull generality is Lord Doncastle, the British Prime Minister, whose languid exterior covers an utterly ruthless cunning and cynicism. He is very willing to let events be manoevred towards war, since war between France and Germany would save his ministry in the coming election:
the English government was in an excessively rickety condition, and […] only a dangerous European war could save it, the English public having the excellent habit of never swapping horses while crossing a stream.
The novel’s best scene is a Cabinet meeting,where he gets what he wants; he sums up the international situation:
It is true that France does not want a war, but in this case we can, in our quality of friendly observer, judge better than she can of what is best for her. Germany will be defeated, and her outrageous ambitions, her disquieting rivalry with ourselves, definitely checked. The last Franco-German war proved to be an unmixed benefit for British commerce ; and the next one will undoubtedly prove to be the same. Nothing is better calculated to stop a panic in the City than the assurance of a Franco-German war. Lastly, we shall remain in office for at least another year, and shall be able to continue without fear our beneficent programme of legislation.
The scene prefigures, in a much cruder way, the political manoeuvres of Lord Raingo, and the insight that ‘political questions are decided by instinct, a polite name for prejudice, and not by reason’ is definitely a theme of the later novel.
In some ways The Statue is a frustrating book. I found the first half not very interesting – too many pages spent expecting us to be wowed by the power and ruthlessness of millionaires, and a rather clichéd love plot. The second half perks up like anything, though, with a trial scene full of surprises, a good description of Dartmoor and its prison (I bet Philpotts, the Devon novelist, wrote this part), and a big destructive climax. I was annoyed with myself at the end for not having realised from the start what the real function of the giant statue was.
This very much belongs with what Bennett called his fantasias rather than with his novels. He and Philpotts probably wrote this for a lark, but also for the money. The Grand Babylon Hotel was Bennett’s first big seller, and his popular reputation was probably based more on this sort of book than on the Five Towns novels. That’s the impression one gets from P.G.Wodehouse, anyway, who complained in a Vanity Fair article of 1919:
Arnold Bennett is a particularly bad example. He began by writing stories about women with Titian colored hair being found in pools of blood on the doormat. None of his characters ever went to bed; they spent the night listening to one other give low, sinister whistles or watching one other climb into windows with masks on. They handled revolvers with the careless ease with which the ordinary man handles an umbrella. I put Arnold Bennett on my list of reliable authors, and had my order in for “Clayhanger” directly it was announced among Forthcoming Novels. I can still remember skimming its pages for the corpse, and my disappointment when the only character who died did it in his bed after about four hundred pages of preparation.
As for Eden Philpotts, I only know his play The Farmer’s Wife, which I saw acted rather well by amateurs many years ago; the play is also the basis of a well-crafted early Hitchcock film. At the Bennett conference the other week we were reminded of Philpotts’ huge output of novels, mostly set in Devon. I wonder – are they still readable? And did he ever write about the impact of the Great War on Devon (as Sheila Kaye-Smith memorably did for Sussex)? Maybe I should try to find out.