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THE SOCIOLOGY OF BENNETT'S CLAYHANGER By Andrew Lincoln (Westfield College, University of London] When Walter Allen, in a generally sympathetic reading, suggested that "Cl ay hanger suffers, as all chronicle novels must, from a lack of form, from the lack of an overriding conception," he summed up a view that had been current since the first appearance of the novel.1 Nowhere does Bennett follow an individual's development more closely or record the factual surface of life more minutely than here; and it has often been assumed that for Bennett such realism was an end in itself, achieved at the expense of other, perhaps higher, aesthetic aims. Since Allen's study of Bennett, more attention has been paid to the structural principles that shape Bennett's fiction. James HaM has argued that Cl a y h an g e; r presents an example of the thematic opposition between "primit i vism" and "taste" that runs throughout Bennett's work. In Clayhanger this opposition is revealed in "the contest between Edwin's real father, Darius the printer, and his ideal father, Osmond Orgreave, for him."2 James Hepburn, on the other hand, noticing a number of parallels in the text, suggests that the novel is unified by two central images: "The two images are obverse reflections of each other: the central figure of each is a dying or old man of some religious consequence, toward whom hatred . . . or loving kindness is expressed. They reflect, dream and reality, the conflict in Edwin's soul with regard to his father."3 Both readings are sufficiently persuasive to dispell the notion that Clayhanger is a specimen of mere artless realism, and yet both present difficulties. The thematic categories suggested by Hall are surely relevant to some extent, and yet we may feel that they lead him to simplify the novel when he concludes that for Edwin, Hilda Lessways is a "compromise between the Clayhangers and the Orgreaves," and that in marrying her he is falling short of his true goal, the "culture mediator" Janet Orgreave (p. 8b). Similarly, Hepburn is surely right to draw attention to the series of contrasts and parallels that runs through the novel, but when his search for unifying "images" leads him to suggest that "the child beating the canal horse is Edwin gaining the whip hand over the old river god, his father" (p. 87), we may feel that distant parallels are being yoked by violence together in a way that distorts the text. In this essay 1 shall argue that the narrative of Cl ayhanger is indeed organised by a series of parallels, parallels that indicate the sociological significance of Edwin's development. Once the general design of the novel has been clarified, I shall examine the contrasts that Hall emphasises, between Darius and Osmond, Hilda and Janet, in order to show their place in the design. Having received the first printed copies of Clayhanger, Bennett began to suspect that some readers would have 188 189 difficulties with the book: "On reflection I think it does contain more sociology than [The 01d Wives' TaIe]. I had promised this in the prospectus of it, but I was afraid I had not fulfilled the promise. It was only when Marguerite began to read the book that I real ised--without her asking any questions--how full of difficulties it must be for a stranger, and how unlike the ordinary good novel."4 Here Bennett seems to associate the difficulties of the novel with its "sociology," although it is not clear whether the term refers merely to the wealth of factual detail in the narrative or to the general perspective maintained on this material. The vagueness here is typical: Bennett's letters and critical works contain only the most general comments about the design and contents of his novels. But although he was no theorist, it seems clear that as he became more ambitious in his fiction, so his interest in the theoretical bases of sociology deepened. In 1903, with /\ Ma_n_ from the North and Anna of the Fi ve Towns already behind him, he was prepared to dismiss Herbert Spencer--who had been one of the most influential...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 188-200
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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