Arnold Bennett’s Fiction

From the Potteries to Literary Success

by Francesca D'Alfonso (Author)
©2023 Monographs 176 Pages


This monograph is focused on the fictional works of Arnold Bennett whose literary role was very important in the history of the late nineteenth and early twentiethcentury novel in light of the debate between modernism and the traditional approach to the craft of fiction. After a long period of critical silence, this book reaffirms Bennett’s centrality through a sociohistorical and semiotic analysis of his most famous novels and short stories. In this sense, it offers a new reading of Bennett which may be a groundbreaking contribution to the discussion of the function of British fiction in the context of a multifaceted epistemic change.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • CHAPTER 1 Fiction and realism according to Arnold Bennett
  • CHAPTER 2 Character formation and narrative ambiguity in Anna of the Five Towns
  • CHAPTER 3 Time and place in The Old Wives’ Tale
  • CHAPTER 4 The “Grim Smile” of the Potteries: A Reading of “The Silent Brothers” and “The Death of Simon Fuge”
  • CHAPTER 5 Accident: an adventure and its romantic variations
  • Series Index

←6 | 7→


In comparison with most English authors of his time, Arnold Bennett has found favour with very few literary critics. The reasons for this are not difficult to explain: Bennett had no qualms about exploiting his extraordinary narrative skills for purely economic purposes, regardless of the negative impact the huge output of his novels and short stories would have on the quality of his writing and (what was even more important), his image. Consequently, his literary activity was inevitably involved with the popular novel genre of the early nineteenth century which would, in turn, be taken up by sensation fiction in the sixties (see Wilkie Collins, M. E. Braddon, Ellen Wood, etc).

Bennett’s figure has enjoyed a recent revival through the publication of Patrick Donovan’s biography, after years of silence on the part of English and non-English critics alike, who, as Bernard Bergonzi has pointed out, had identified two almost divergent paths in the development of his art: “Bennett was a man of prodigious energy, who wrote fiction on two levels: in addition to those carefully planned novels which he regarded as serious works of art, he produced a great many books of a frankly pot-boiling kind in order to make money”1. In fact, Donovan describes Bennett as a “lost icon”, i.e., an icon of the coeval cultural scene. However, it is often the case with artists who are all too visible during their lifetime, that they become – with very few exceptions – surrounded by a veil of silence after their death. As a result, Bennett has received very little critical attention. One remarkable exception worthy of mention is Margaret Drabble’s biography which shows no hesitation in emphasising the greatness of his imaginative powers. Yet, as mentioned above, the critical neglect Bennett has suffered can be justified by the fact that he totally succumbed to the muse of commercialism. His all too free-flowing pen and all too fervid imagination, ←7 | 8→produced some eighty works, including novels, anthologies of short stories, essays and plays (some in collaboration with other writers), while in reality, only two novels and a few short stories have survived as classics of the Western canon.

For this reason, my study focuses on those works that are now considered authentic “classics” of European literature. Among these I have also included the novel Accident, which, to my mind, has been unfairly underrated by critics and reviewers. It is my view that in Accident Bennett achieves the levels of his best work, demonstrating an extraordinary ability to portray a world in which change was linked to the new means of transport. Furthermore, my monograph is not organised in terms of a chronological sequence with a discussion of all the writer’s works, but follows a thematic development in which the Potteries and the young Bennett’s desire to move away from a place that had nothing to offer him, apart from the monotony of its commerce and the work ethic of its inhabitants. In this context, it is particularly important to emphasise the figure of the artist who, as I try to make clear in each chapter, becomes the only means of revolt against the imaginative sterility of the Five Towns. In this sense, there is an overlap and convergence between the writer and certain biographical features of his protagonists, such as Sophia Baines who, with her escape to Paris, embodies the same rebelliousness that must have animated Arnold Bennett when – as described in Drabble’s and Donovan’s biographies – he felt the oppressive presence of a culturally confined and religiously narrow-minded microcosm that had nothing more to offer than a dreary industrial landscape and the worthless respectability of a community exclusively devoted to its industrial and commercial activities.

Before concluding this brief preface, I would like to express my utmost gratitude to Francesco Marroni, Director of the Victorian and Edwardian Studies series, a tireless scholar who has been my main wellspring of inspiration and learning for a quarter of a century now. He generously read and re-read my manuscript while never failing to provide me with methodological suggestions, critical insights and, above all, a genuine affection that I hope I have been able to reciprocate.

My deepest esteem also goes to Ruggiero Dipace, Director of the Department of Law of the University of Molise, for having encouraged ←8 | 9→and financed the publication of this volume, and always showing the signs of a wonderful friendship.

I am indebted to Giuseppe Peter Vanoli more than I could ever say, more than I could ever write, for believing in me and for keeping my spirits and motivation high with his enthusing closeness and support.

A very special thanks to Renzo D’Agnillo, who patiently and scrupulously read every chapter of this monograph, providing me with valuable advice on a stylistic level as well as discussing with me the most recent critical works on Bennett.

I am particularly grateful to Raffaella Antinucci, Luca Baratta, Francesca Caraceni, Michela Marroni, Enrichetta Soccio and Tania Zulli (please forgive the alphabetical order) with whom I have had numerous discussions on both a literary and personal level.

I would also like to mention the enthusiasm with which the members of the Arnold Bennett Society continue to dedicate their lively encounters, seminars and talks in order to promote the ideas and works of the author of the Potteries. Even though I have never been personally acquainted with them, their initiatives have greatly contributed in furthering my knowledge of the places in which Bennett lived.

Finally, I would like to thank my colleagues at the University of Molise who, although not involved in my field of research, have always been keen to hear about my interests across the channel.

This book is dedicated to my extraordinary students in the post-Graduate course in Literature and the History of Art in Molise.

Campobasso, 13.09.2022

←10 | 11→

CHAPTER 1 Fiction and realism according to Arnold Bennett

1. One of the main features of Arnold Bennett’s literary activity is the apparent discontinuity of his imaginative vision. His works seem to alternate too often between profound novels with a broad canvass and light-hearted tales fashioned for the demands of the literary market. He may well be the author of masterpieces which have left their mark on the nineteenth and twentieth century English novel, but the success he obstinately pursued could not be separated, for him, from his intention to reach out to as many readers as possible. For Bennett, however, this was not simply a case of financial profit but an indication of his ability to follow the pulse of English society while avoiding the detachment and loftiness which characterised most authors of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Thus, Bennett’s quest for popularity and success was dictated not only by commercial ends but also by his deeply ingrained belief that the literary marketplace should be respected and acknowledged as a fundamental channel upon which the book industry depended for its existence.

In his 1903 essay on the novel, “The ‘Average Reader’ and the Recipe for Popularity”, Bennett clearly outlines his ideas on the question of the circulation of novels:

To admire the less admirable in art is not a crime, nor the fruit of a mischievous intention to overthrow the august verdict of the centuries: nor is it a mere vagary. If 50,000 people buy a novel whose shortcomings render it tenth-rate, we may be sure that they have not conspired to do so, and also that their apparently strange unanimity is not due to chance. There must be another explanation of the phenomenon, and when this explanation is discovered some real progress will have been made towards that democratisation of art which it is surely the duty of the minority to undertake, and to undertake in a religious spirit. The missionary does not make converts by a process of jeers; he minimises the difference between himself and the heathen, assumes a brotherhood, and sympathetically ←11 | 12→leads forward from one point of view to another; and in order thus to lead forward he finds out what the first point of view is2.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (February)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2023. 176 pp.

Biographical notes

Francesca D'Alfonso (Author)

Francesca D’Alfonso is an Associate Professor in English Literature at the University of Molise (Italy). Her main fields of research are late Victorian literature and culture and the American novel of the twentieth century, especially with regard to Italian American writers (John Fante, Nino Ricci, etc.). She is a member of CUSVE (Centre for Victorian and Edwardian Studies).


Title: Arnold Bennett’s Fiction
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
178 pages