Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett

Reviewed by Julie Barham

I think that the overwhelming sense or atmosphere of this book is sadness. Nevertheless, it is a faithful picture of life in a town of the turn of the century. This is of course the story of the towns of Stoke on Trent, and there are those who would dispute exactly how many towns there were. There are two things that do shine through; this is the story of Anna Tellwright, daughter of a noted rich miser. The second is that the dominant industry of the area, the making of household crockery, affects all the lives described in this book, for good or evil.

The context of much of the novel is the strength of the Methodist churches in the way that many of the characters behave. The reader is introduced to the story via the sight of little Agnes, waiting outside the Sunday school, noticing the characters who emerge from the buildings, knowing the impression her sister Anna makes on the young men that appear, especially Henry Mynors. We soon see that Anna is in love with him, and that feeling seems to be mutual. She almost collapses at the realisation, before her “impassive” sense returns as she is confronted by her father, and his “terrible sway” over her. His miserly ways and inspired investment have meant that he is by the standard of the times a rich man, and it emerges that Anna herself is the recipient of a large and increasing legacy.  Mr Tellwright has no joy, no pleasure in either his money or his daughters, and both Anna and Agnes know that their household responsibilities are and will be onerous and bitter. Even though life will change for Anna, improve and increase in some ways, there will be the need for bravery and sacrifice on her part in the face of her father and his stubborn attitudes.

So, while this is not a cheerful book in many ways, it is intense and written at a very human, realistic level. The descriptions of the treat for the Sunday school, the holiday and the Wesleyan Bazaar are painfully realistic. The feelings of Anna as she deals with events and people, her expectations and convictions, are so carefully written in a relatively short book that we follow her progress vividly. The religious revival campaign is brilliantly described in terms of Anna’s response; human and determined rather than an easy change.

I enjoyed reading this book in many ways; I became so wrapped up in the fate of some of the characters that I dreaded reading on. Bennett was a prolific writer and there are many of his books available and I am enjoying tracking them down, as despite his gender he seems to write women with a rare sympathy, a rare understanding of their fears and daily lives. I would recommend this as a good starting point for reading Bennett, as well as a valuable insight into social history and the lives of those living in the industrial Midlands written in a sympathetic and understanding way.

Julie blogs at Northern Reader

Arnold Bennett, Anna of the Five Towns (Vintage, 2017). 978-1784872366, 288 pp., paperback.

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