Simon Heffer writing in the Daily Telegraph reconsiders the career and reputation of Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), an early supporter of Evelyn Waugh. The article opens with this:
Despite the literary achievement of Arnold Bennett, generations have now grown up unaware of him. Even 40 years ago, when I was studying for an English degree, the novelist was despised by dons who followed the groupthink initiated by Virginia Woolf (in a Cambridge lecture in 1924) that Bennett was – like his popular contemporaries HG Wells and John Galsworthy (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) – second rate.
The article goes on to mention a new biography of Bennett by Patrick Donovan. This is entitled Arnold Bennett: Lost Icon and is the first since the one by Margaret Drabble in 1974. Here’s an excerpt:
Before the Great War, Bennett had lived in Paris, acquiring a French wife and an understanding of the advanced currents of French culture. He befriended Maurice Ravel. When war came he joined Britain’s propaganda operation, became one of its directors, and turned down a knighthood. Firmly part of the establishment, he acquired a new best friend, Lord Beaverbrook. He wrote one of his most critically-acclaimed novels, Riceyman Steps, in 1923, but his reputation as a novelist declined soon after Woolf ‘s attack.
That didn’t stop him becoming one of the most influential literary critics in the land. He was paid the equivalent of £350,000 a year by the Evening Standard to review books for them: he praised Evelyn Waugh and championed Radclyffe Hall’s controversial 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness.
In his final years when Bennett was the chief book reviewer at the Evening Standard, that was still an influential paper. In that venue, Bennett briefly reviewed both Decline and Fall (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930), strongly preferring the former to the latter. Although the Telegraph article does not go into the details of those reviews, they are both available in Martin Stannard’s Critical Heritage volume devoted to Evelyn Waugh. According to Bennett, D&F was
an uncompromising and brilliantly malicious satire, which in my opinion comes near to being quite first rate–especially in the third part dealing with the prison system. I say without reserve that this novel delighted me.
He mentions it again two years later: “really brilliantly funny about once a page.” But in that same article he found VB “less successful”. It included “satirical sallies of the first order of merit” but the nonlinear plot required careful reading. He found the “smart set” unsympathetic and, while Waugh’s satirization of it is “not unjust, … some of it is extremely, wildly farcical.” Bennett “began the book with great expectations but found hard times in the middle of it.” His review concludes with a reference to Alec Waugh who he believes has “more to say [and] is weightier than his cadet”, praising Alec’s new book The Coloured Countries. Bennett died the year after that second review was written.
The article in the Daily Telegraph concludes its discussion of the new biography with the following assessment:
This excellent book puts Bennett back on the map. All that is now necessary is for people to start reading him again: an enterprising publisher should republish his novels, and encourage a new audience to discover the treasure they hold.