When asked about unjustly neglected novels, we have no hesitation in answering Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett, first published in 1910. Hugely prolific, the once popular chronicler of Staffordshire’s Potteries – the Five Towns – Arnold Bennett’s reputation and fame have declined since his zenith in the early twentieth century for a variety of reasons, one simply being that he wrote enthralling narratives about ordinary people’s lives. Perhaps he is just thought too accessible for modern literary circles. He nevertheless remains one of the most acute readers of the human psyche and the Clayhanger trilogy shows him at his best: recording thwarted human ambition, the prickliness of finding love and the dreariness and responsibilities of work. Its characters are complex and their tribulations, particularly their interior ones, utterly real.
One of Bennett’s most perceptive and moving scenes has direct relevance to today, which is Good Friday in the western church, though the scene itself takes place on a gloriously hot day, the characters sweltering under their layers of Edwardian clothing, as the little Potteries town comes together in carnival atmosphere to celebrate the centenary of founding the Methodist Sunday School. Edwin Clayhanger, the young hero of the trilogy, now a successful businessman – but in the family printing business he was obliged to join by his overbearing and domineering father – is in love with Hilda Lessways, the mysterious independent thinker to whom he is tentatively drawing closer both intellectually and emotionally. This day proves an education for Edwin, and for the reader, though for different reasons. Thrilled to be in her company, Edwin’s mixture of insecurity and growing poise are powerfully evoked as Hilda and he are subsumed within the distasteful sentimentality all human beings will recognise from their own experiences of mass hysteria on such occasions.
To the heat of the sun, and the massing of the crowds and the various brass bands, with their banners and dignitaries, are added one by one the hymns – as Bennett puts it in an aside, ‘None but the classical lyrics of British Christianity had found a place in the programme of the great day’ – each refulgent with references to the blood of the Paschal lamb. Emboldened by Hilda’s sophistication, worldliness and religious scepticism, Edwin – who knows every line and the implication of every line – contemplates the contrast between these outpourings of communal certainty and the fate of those across the world served by missionary zeal, and his own agnosticism, to him the mark of a man of the world. Hearing the words ‘Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood’:
A phrase in the speech loosed some catch in him and he turned suddenly to Hilda, and in an intimate half-whisper murmured—
“What?” she harshly questioned. But he knew that she understood.
“Well,” he said audaciously, “look at it! It only wants the Ganges at the bottom of the Square!”
No one heard save she. But she put her hand on his arm protestingly. “Even if we don’t believe,” said she— not harshly, but imploringly, “we needn’t make fun.”
“We don’t believe!” And that new tone of entreaty! She had comprehended without explanation. She was a weird woman. Was there another creature, male or female, to whom he would have dared to say what he had said to her? He had chosen to
say it to her because he despised her, because he wished to trample on her feelings. She roused the brute in him, and perhaps no one was more astonished than himself to witness
the brute stirring. Imagine saying to the gentle and sensitive Janet: “It only wants the Ganges at the bottom of the Square—”. He could not.
They stood silent, gazing and listening. And the sun went higher in the sky and blazed down more cruelly. And then the speech ended, and the speaker wiped his head with an enormous
handkerchief. And the multitude, led by the brazen instruments, which in a moment it overpowered, was singing to a solemn air-
‘When I survey the wondrous cross
‘On which the Prince of Glory died
‘My richest gain I count but loss
‘And pour contempt on all my pride.’
Hilda shook her head.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, leaning towards her from his barrel.
“That’s the most splendid religious verse ever written!” she said passionately. “You can say what you like. It’s worth while believing anything, if you can sing words like that and mean
them!” She had an air of restrained fury. But fancy exciting herself over a hymn!
“Yes, it is fine, that is!” he agreed.
“Do you know who wrote it?” she demanded menacingly.
“I’m afraid I don’t remember,” he said. The hymn was one of his earliest recollections, but it had never occurred to him to be curious as to its authorship.
Her lips sneered. “Dr Watts, of course!” she snapped.
He could hear her, beneath the tremendous chanting from the Square, repeating the words to herself with her precise and impressive articulation.
And so that chapter ends but treat yourself and read the whole novel and think about Bennett’s accomplishment in this scene for yourself. Dr Watts, with whose name we perhaps should all be familiar, is buried in Bunhill Fields, near Old Street in the City of London, the non-Conformist cemetery which is also home to John Bunyan and William Blake.
His greatest hymn will be sung throughout the world today. Here it is sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.