2008 saw the 100th anniversary of the publication of Arnold Bennett’s finest novel “Old Wives Tale”. Its publication date quickly follows that of Bennett’s great friend and rival HG Wells book “In the Days of the Comet” which was written in 1906. What links these two pieces of Edwardian fiction? They both have a Leek connection.
Bennett knew the Staffordshire Moorlands and while the main setting of his books remained Stoke, Leek especially crops up in various guises in his work. In first appears as “Axe” or “Manifold” in one of his earliest novels “Anna of the Five Towns” published in 1902 and again in his collection of short stories “ Tales of the Five Towns (1905) and “The Grim Smile of the Five Towns” which have Leek and
settings. This is especially the
case in the later collection in the story “ Death of Simon Fuge” his short
story on the artistic life and pretensions of Burslem in the 1890s. Rudyard Lake Rudyard Lake
was a popular venue for a young man from the Potteries
to visit in that decade with frequent train from Stoke.
The Moorland connection is continued in Old Wives Tale. Sam walks to Axe (Leek) to tell his mother in law that he is become a father. Leek also played a role in perhaps his most popular literary creation Denry Machin in the “Card”. The character on which the novel is based HK Hales once in the 1890s cycled on a penny-farthing for a bet against a horseman to get from Burslem to Leek in the shortest time. Hales won.
Wells, who lived in
for several months in 1888, used his
experience of living in the area in a number of his novels and short stories
prior to his “Comet” novel. The short story Cone with its gristly ending
of a character falling into a furnace was based at Shelton Bar Steel Works.
But it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time how promiscuous, how higgledy piggedy was that jumble of mines and homes, collieries and pot banks, railway yards, canals, schools, forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotments hovels a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which men lived as happily as frogs in a dustbin.
I get the impression that Wells used the surrounding countryside to contrast with the hideousness of the industrial landscape which he experienced in his stay in Basford.
But back to the
based Bennett who was born in Hanley in September 1867 to lower middle class
parents. Bennett professed to be a radical, and he remained throughout his life
a hater of injustice, but his own belief system marked him out as a child of
nonconformist certainties. He had a belief in industry, patriotism and thrift.
He was of a class and from a geographical area. He soaked up every detail of
the people and character of North Staffordshire.
He was a laureate to the lower middle class and the provincial.
He regarded writing as a trade and at each year’s end would note the amount of words that he had written that year and how much he had been paid. One critic unkindly suggested that a sign should be erected outside his study “Articles written to order”
If he took a workingman’s approach to his craft he still remained a bourgeois and a little tyrant as well especially in his relationship with women, something that he shared in common with Wells. He was easily bored- he tired of his home, his car, his yacht and of his wife. He certainly recoiled from the area that has provided the source of his material. On his last visit through
North Staffordshire he is alleged to
have shuddered and pulled the blind of his railway carriage down. But behind
his heavy set figure with his showy clothes, his heavy lidded eyes, his half
open mouth and his slight speech impediment, was a shy man.
But he never wrote of a dull character and he made the ordinary interesting chronicling the lives of a stoical and defiant people. North Staffordshire belongs to him as
Wessex belongs to Hardy or Haworth
to the Bronte’s
His greatest novel was the Old Wives Tale. It also celebrates the commonplace although never in a dull way. It is the story of two women Constance and Sophia Baines who have different destinies. It charters their progress from running a drapers shop to old age. It contrasts the stay at home Constance who marries Sam Povey with the spirited Sophia who elopes with the dashing but wastrel Gerald Scales. It proved to be the most critically acclaimed of his books.
One of the admirers of Old Wives Tales was Wells who wrote to Bennett praising him for his efforts.
No further question of First Rank. A great book and a big one.
Wells came to live in the area following an accident he suffered as a schoolteacher when working at a school in Wrexham. The accident damaged his lungs and he went to convalesce with an old College friend John Burton, originally from
who was working at Wedgwood at the time. (It does seem odd that you would
choose to stay in Stoke of the late 1880s with its appalling atmospheric
pollution to recuperate from a lung injury!)
He went to live with the Burton’s
at their house in Basford. He proved to be a very difficult lodger. He was
fractious, touchy, quarrelsome, impatient and without much control. He behaved
like Kevin the Teenager. In later life Wells did apologies for behaviour that
he felt was very immature. But he did spend his time in the area in a
productive way and it allowed him to explore the local scenery. He used this
experience to colour descriptive passages on industrial landscape and as a
metaphor for the hell of modern life. Although Bennett was living only 2 miles
away: they never met in 1888.
Bennett wrote to Wells after the publication of the Invisible Man enclosing a review he had written and enquiring whether Wells time in
North Staffordshire had an impact upon his writing. Wells
reply was genial and a friendship developed which lasted until Bennett’s death
in 1931. The men were of the same age, their social class was similar, and
their writing practises were very alike to be bracketed together.