This blog’s subtitle, “Oddments of High Unimportance,” comes from Arnold Bennett’s journal entry for 23-July-1907:
In the afternoon I seemed to do nothing but oddments of high unimportance.
I went on a Bennett binge last year. I suppose I first became aware of him through posts on Zhurnalwiki
, the proprietor of which has several admiring pages
devoted to Bennett’s writings on stoicism and what Bennett called (in one of his essay collections) “Mental Efficiency.” And in fact it’s in his essays of self-help (which ran originally as a series of newspaper articles) that I first made my acquaintance with him.
You can find more on Bennett and his work with just a little research
or reading some of his works online
, but here’s the potted history:
- Born 1867 in the Potteries district of England; primarily industrial, working-class, a family of genteel poverty and not always pleasant relations with his immediate family.
- Eventually becomes a journalist and through sheer hard work, remakes himself as a literary man who lived by his pen.
- Writes novels, short stories, plays, book reviews, literary journalism, “self-help” articles, and even headed England’s war propaganda dept in WWI, for a time.
- His most famous novel, and the one that made his name, was The Old Wives Tale.
- He wrote too much, really. The “peanut butter” school of energy management says that when you spread the peanut butter too thin, it loses its flavor. Likewise, the more he wrote, particularly fiction, the more thin and less interesting his material became. His style of novel-writing slowly antiqued under his fingers.
- As he grew more successful and rich (and despised by the younger literary elite for his success, money, and “old-fashioned” writing style) he grew more distanced from the material that really fed his fiction. Still, late in his life, he wrote Riceyman Steps, a study of a miserly bookstore owner, which surprised the literary world and rejuvenated him for a bit. The old dog still had a few tricks left in him. (I read “Riceyman” last year; some quite unbelievable moments, but good details here and there and a few mind-popping scenes, as when the miser has to decide whether to give a charity a few dollars in his hand, and look beneficent in front of his new wife, or hold on to those few dollars for dear life.)
- He was a director of the Savoy Hotel, whose chef named an omelette for him.
- Along the way, Bennett republished as books collections of articles on what he called his “pocket philosophies”: self-help, mainly, on staying calm in the storm, not working so hard against yourself, keeping an even keel, and so on. He was a Stoic and extolled Epictetus and Aurielius. These were mainly collections of articles he’d written and were read by many lower- and middle-class people who didn’t read or know about his fiction. (These articles were published as series in newspapers but under anonymous byline, I think.) Selections include How to Live on 24 Hours a Day and The Human Machine.
- If you riffle through Margaret Drabble’s biography of AB, you’ll soon see that his philosophies were harder to live by than to package and sell. He made a disastrous first marriage (she never granted him a divorce), and in his second relationship, left his companion and their daughter almost paupers.
- He was of that generation which the new literary lions, i.e., The Bloomsbury Group, despised. He and Virginia Woolf crossed swords in a series of book reviews, and Woolf dealt AB’s reputation a death blow in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” Though they met later at parties and seemed to get on well (her epitaph of Bennett in her diary is touching), her essay lived on and stamped his literary reputation for decades.
- When he was dying of typhoid in 1931, Scotland Yard put straw on the streets outside his residence to dampen the sound of carts and vehicles. He was the last “great man” for whom this was done.
- Not long after his death, the Depression and changing literary fashion made AB forgotten within a matter of only a few years.
- His books (the major ones anyway) were still read for decades after, but he’s regarded nowadays as one of those bestselling authors of yesteryear whose books are unreadable today.
Some of his nonfiction essays on travel, theater, art, politics, etc., were collected in privately circulated books that he gave to friends at Christmas, and are by and large quite readable, I think. He tends to lead the reader by the hand quite a lot, but his prose is clear and he links his ideas so that anyone can understand them. This is probably why he sold so many of the pocket philosophies. I found his travel writings a little boring after a while and the essays on the current state of politics or theatrical management less than interesting. But when he got on to writing about literature or art, my interest revived and he was a most congenial companion.
In addition to all the other writing he did, he also kept a journal off and on (mostly on) from 1896 to his death. Local used bookshops in our area have several copies of this, and I’ve been dipping into it as my breakfast-table reading. I imagine it would make nice bedtime reading also, as it’s eminently pick-uppable and put-downnable. He also seems, from the writing, a genuinely nice and sensible man, with a generous nature, a tart sense of humor, disdainful of stupid and unthinking behavior, solid opinions but with the ability to change his mind, and it’s quite nice to spend a few minutes with him.
I’ll post various quotes of his that I’ve copied from his essays or journal, from time to time.
Here’s one to go out with:
In front, on a little hill in the vast valley, was spread out the Indian-red architecture of Bursley - tall chimneys and rounded ovens, schools, the new scarlet market, the high spire of the evangelical church……the crimson chapels, and rows of little red houses with amber chimney pots, and the gold angel of the Town Hall topping the whole. The sedate reddish browns and reds of the composition all netted in flowing scarves of smoke, harmonised exquisitely with the chill blues of the chequered sky. Beauty was achieved, and none saw it.
A shortish bio of Bennett by his friend Frank Swinnerton is here