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ARNOLD BENNETT AND ARCHIBALD MARSHALL: TWO LETTERS FROM A FORGOTTEN LITERARY FRIENDSHIP By Michael John McDonough (Pennsylvania State University) James Hepburn's three-volume Letters of Arnold Bennett is a masterful but nevertheless incomplete record of Bennett's many literary friendships. Bennett of course reigned as one of the most visible, productive, and profitable British writers of the post-war era. His advice and friendship was also sought by committed writers, frustrated playwrights, promising cntics, and envious journalists. In short, he became a flamboyant Garrick-like figure, counseling the crowded stalls of international adoration. Archibald Marshall, a dedicated observer of English life and custom, was one of those admirers who submitted his work to Bennett for comment. The two letters published and edited here for the first time reveal a brief moment in the warm friendship between a major writer and a minor, now forgotten but equally committed novelist. They appear to be the only surviving documents of this obscure literary correspondence. Today, it seems as if Marshall is the defenseless victim of a conspiratorial silence and this once productive writer is rarely mentioned in most of the histories and anthologies of the period. Yet in a writing career that spanned thirty-five years, he wrote over thirty novels that accurately reproduced the values and attitudes of a rural middle-class struggling to survive in the once rigid but now decaying class system of England. His early work was received well in America, and William Lyon Phelps was the first critic to discuss his work with any serious intentions. Analyzing such early novels as Eaton Manor, The Greatest of Times, and The Old Order Changing, Phelps promptly illustrates the dominant thematic values and strategies of composition expressed by Marshall's refined social vision: "These books have not got the 'punch,' nor any 'red blood,' nor any lubricity or vulgarity. Strangest of all qualities, they are filled with charming, decent, well-bred, kindly, human people, so that to read these novels is like visiting a good home."1 Phelps was so impressed by Marshall's fiction that he wrote a book-length study of his work; published in 1918, Archibald Marshall: A Realistic Novelist still remains the only comprehensive study of Marshall's novels. Echoing his earlier critical perspective, Phelps, asserting that Marshall is "our contemporary Trollope," insists that "he is apart from the main currents of twentieth century fiction, standing indeed in the midst of the stream like a commemorative pillar to Victorian art."2 In other critical works, Marshall is either relegated to the obscurity of an insignificant footnote or briefly mentioned as an indistinct member of a large and ill-defined group of secondary writers. Gerald Gould, writing in The English Novel of To-Day, quickly states Marshall's recurring thematic concerns but refuses to offer any deeper analysis: "His main ideas are the country house and the country family, the tremendous legend of patriarchal duties, frenetic sports, and narrow but unshaken loyalties. St. John Adcock's affectionate praise of Marshall's work did little to improve the author's reputation, 371 although he clearly mirrors Phelps' earlier perspective when he suggests that there is "no truer historian of certain phases of English life that are gradually passing away." Both Elizabeth A. Drew and Katherine Mansfield suggest that his rural environment fails to offer the vibrant tensions found in the work of the newer novelists whose rugged characters inhabit the squalor of the city.3 Unfortunately, much of the more recent critical work has failed to add anything of significance to the existing criticism or to revive Marshall's obscure reputation. An anonymous writer in the New York Times could only conclude that Marshall's work repeatedly depicted "the ordered existence of the ruling country families." Gordon Gerould, dismissing Marshall's ordered and refined fictional worlds, implies that Marshall was a misfit, a displaced Victorian, striving to maintain order and balance in an age of social and artistic revolution: "He exhibited the way of life among English gentlefolk under the pressure of modern conditions.' William York Tindall offers a similar perspective; he suggests that the work of Marshall, David Garnett, T. H. White, and Sylvia Townsend Warner is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 371-377
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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