A short biography of Arnold Bennett, author of Anna of the Five Towns and Clayhanger
1. His first name was actually Enoch. Born in 1867 in Hanley, Staffordshire (part of the famous ‘Potteries’ and now a district of Stoke-on-Trent), Enoch Arnold Bennett was named after his father, a solicitor. Enoch Junior was sent to the school at Newcastle-under-Lyme (‘Oldcastle’ in his fiction), but he only became a successful writer after he had left his hometown in the Potteries. However, he would write about them in much of his fiction. It is an odd fact in the life of Arnold Bennett that he could not perhaps have written so well about his homeland of North Staffordshire if he had remained there. Would James Joyce have been able to write Ulysses if he’d remained in Dublin? In London, he became a clerk to a solicitor and, after winning a literary prize, a full-time journalist. He would continue to write journalism until his death in 1931, and towards the end of his life wrote a regular books column for the Evening Standard.
2. He has an omelette named after him. ‘Omelette Arnold Bennett’ comprises smoked haddock, cream, and Parmesan cheese, and was invented by a chef at the Savoy Hotel in London where Bennett frequently dined. It is still on the menu there, and is served in many other restaurants.
3. He invented ‘sexy’. Or, at least, the earliest recorded use of the word ‘sexy’ currently cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a letter written by Arnold Bennett in 1896. On 16 May 1896, the young author wrote: ‘Lane had decided … not to handle your work of genius, on the score that it was seksy & America didn’t want no seks-problems.’ The jocular spelling aside, this appears to be the first use of the word ‘sexy’ (or ‘seksy’) committed to writing, at least according to current research. The word is being used here in the sense of ‘bawdy’ or ‘risqué’; the later sense, denoting sexual attractiveness, would not appear until 1912.
4. Virginia Woolf is largely responsible for his name not being as famous as it once was. In the narrative of English literary history, as evinced by many university degree programmes, the Victorians give way to the Modernists – you go from Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy to Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. This, of course, overlooks the writers who fell between these two big periods: the Edwardians. Virginia Woolf herself, like other modernists such as T. S. Eliot, contributed to this narrative: in her 1919 essay ‘Modern Novels’ (later reprinted as ‘Modern Fiction’), she poured scorn on the fiction of the Edwardian novelists – whom she branded ‘materialist’ for their focus on external reality and relative neglect of psychological complexity – and mentions by name three writers: H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, and Arnold Bennett. Later, in the 1923 essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, she expanded on her objections to Bennett’s approach to writing novels (largely motivated by the negative review of her own novel, Jacob’s Room, which Bennett had written!). Woolf succeeded in more or less airbrushing Bennett’s name out of literary history – at least, so far as the university syllabuses depict it.
Bennett was, in fact, something of a friend to other modernists. He advised T. S. Eliot on his work: when Eliot first tried his hand at a play in the early 1920s, the poet turned – perhaps surprisingly – to the author of The Old Wives’ Tale for advice. This is actually not as odd as it first appears: Bennett had had a successful career in the theatre by this time. What’s more, Bennett’s later fiction, such as the 1923 novel Riceyman Steps – which appeared a year after Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction – is closer to modernism than Woolf would have us believe. In his 1992 book The Intellectuals and the Masses, critic John Carey cast Arnold Bennett as his ‘hero’, portraying Bennett as the champion of the ‘masses’ against the intelligentsia such as Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group.
5. He wrote a popular self-help book titled How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. Published in 1910, this book sees Bennett suggesting ways in which one can get the most out of life. The book was especially aimed at those stuck in middle-of-the-road jobs – clerks and other white-collar professions – whose daily routine was repetitive and whose work was uninspiring. The book prescribes reading, hobbies, and taking an interest in art, among other things, as ways to improve one’s overall happiness. Chapters include ‘The Daily Miracle’, ‘Dangers to Avoid’, and ‘Tennis and the Immortal Soul’. In 1918 Bennett had refused a knighthood, offered partly for his services to the Ministry of Information during the First World War. He died of typhoid in 1931 after drinking tap water in a Paris restaurant, despite being advised against doing so by the waiter.
If you enjoyed this short biography of Arnold Bennett and fun facts, you might enjoy our Five Fascinating Facts about J. B. Priestley.
Image: Arnold Bennett, c. 1928; author unknown; Wikimedia Commons.