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Revisiting "Mr. Bennett": Pleasure, Aversion, and the Social in The Old Wives' Tale ana Riceyman Steps Jason B. Jones Georgia Institute of Technology RELATIVE to his innovative contemporaries, Arnold Bennett seems obsolescent, even anachronistic: a proud realist in a literary culture increasingly skeptical of realism's aesthetic, moral, and epistemological claims. Indeed, in such essays as "Modern Fiction" (1919,1925) and "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1923, 1924), Virginia Woolf uses Bennett as a figure for literary conventions grown stale—and it is Woolf s witty, aphoristic essays rather than Bennett's responses that have come to frame discussions of the early twentieth-century novel. By characterizing Bennett as only concerned with his characters' external characteristics, Woolf makes his prose seem utterly unappealing when compared with the scintillating psychological richness of the modern novel. Even a cursory examination of Bennett's best fiction, however, will show how unfair this characterization is: Bennett inserts a gap between the material and psychic registers of his characters, a gap tending to manifest itself as an excessive refusal of pleasure. In other words, Bennett focuses so relentlessly on the material conditions of his characters not because of an incapacity to conceive inferiority, but rather from a desire to dramatize the mutual foundering of the subjective and the social . Two especially fascinating novels, The Old Wives' Tale (1908) and Riceyman Steps (1924), conceptualize this mutual foundering in relation to history. In The Old Wives' Tale, the historical realm functions as the arena in which to stage psychic conflict, irreducible to historical causes; in Riceyman Steps, which explicitly revises his earlier work, Bennett dramatizes the horrific consequences of fitting the subject to the social, and the terrifying allure of complementarity. 29 ELT 46 : 1 2003 The presence of psychic intractability in the novels of Arnold Bennett forces us to reconsider modernist style. Robert Squillace, Bennett's most sympathetic and brilliant critic, has claimed that Bennett's apparently clear prose has led to a near-universal misunderstanding of his work: In The Old Wives' Tale, Bennett achieves an analysis of secrecy and exposure, of the secret self that obsessed Edwardian novelists, as remarkable as that found in any work by Conrad or James and strikingly different in form. While his contemporaries produced an atmosphere of secrecy by occlusion, by an occluded prose that enwraps mysterious plottings (by both characters and narrator ) and thickly disguised identities, while his contemporaries located the significance of secrecy almost purely in individual psychology, Bennett masks his novel's secrecy in a misleading lucidity and discovers in the changing culture of secrecy a tale of social evolution, of the slow death of patriarchal authority, in which James and Conrad showed little interest.1 Squillace's emphasis on the novel's "misleading lucidity" helpfully connects Bennett with modernists such as Woolf, Conrad, and James and suggests that Bennett's alleged materialism is in fact a ruse, comparable to Conrad's and Woolf's psychological approaches. Bennett's ruse foregrounds the self-estrangement of his characters, pointing up the structural "open secret" at the heart of subjectivity. To sustain his claim, Squillace meticulously scrutinizes the variety of tone in The Old Wives' Tale—in particular, providing a detailed examination of Victorian romantic fantasies permeating Gerald Scales's courtship of Sophia Baines. Squillace argues that the "voice of Bennett's narrator continually admits the idiom of its characters into its words—usually so that the inadequacy of their perception of matters may be gradually exposed by events."2 Squillace concludes from this indirect discourse that "Bennett 's prose calls into question the degree to which any observer—character , narrator, or reader—can gain . . . control" over "the realities of a given milieu."3 Squillace is very persuasive on this count; as a result, it is a little surprising that he asserts that The Old Wives' Tale seeks to establish "progress towards personal autonomy as the soul of Edwardianism."4 If Bennett's prose works to undermine the credibility of personal autonomy as a goal, it seems unlikely that the novel would represent it as the soul of its period. In an attempt to raise the interpretive stakes still higher, I shall explore Bennett's sophisticated understanding of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 29-52
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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