Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett

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Review by Julie Barham

Vintage books have produced a new edition of possibly the best known of Bennett’s novels featuring the story of Edwin Clayhanger. It is very much more than a biography of one man, as the reader sees Edwin’s reactions to those around him as well as his setting in his home and business. This is very much a novel of place and setting, in the famous “five towns” that provided a backdrop for much of Bennett’s writing.

Edwin first appears as a young man just as he leaves school. Poised on what he thinks is a new start in life, he underestimates his father, Darius’, determination to keep Edwin focused on the printing business he has built up. We soon learn that Darius is motivated by a desperately poor start in life, and that his ruthless business practices and treatment of his family are motivated by his determination to rise and stay above the breadline. The achievement of this book is to detail the tiny routines of daily life that construct a full picture of life at the time. While getting a little unfashionable as a style of writing at the time, this does mean that we get a full picture of what motivates Edwin, and comes in contrast to the brief but telling appearances of Hilda.

Much of this novel is concerned with the progress of Edwin as he becomes the head of the family, head of a business, but as innocent in the aspects of romantic life at thirty as he was at eighteen. Hilda is an elusive character; we find out only a little of her views, her life choices, but each memory of her is carefully preserved by Edwin. I assume that more of her story emerges in Bennett’s other novel Hilda Lessways  , in this book she jumps in and out of the text. This book also contains a touching picture of the decline of one of the characters into dementia, a detailed picture of a loss of ability to cope. Edwin observes that he had never realised before how complicated functioning as a human in society was until he witnessed this decline. Not that this is a depressing book; it does have moments of sadness and frustration but in such realistic terms that it is a study of a life rather than a melodrama.

This is a book that rapidly becomes immersive but in a good way. The plot is not the thing, any more than in real life, but reading this book made me feel as if I came to know the Clayhanger family, visited Bursley, and discovered a steady, measured way of writing. Not a book to be rushed through, but a worthy reprint of a classic read.

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Julie Barham blogs at Northern Reader.

Read our Five Fascinating Facts… about Arnold Bennett here.

Arnold Bennett, Clayhanger (Vintage, 2017) paperback, 692 pages.

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