Enoch Arnold Bennett, the son of a solicitor, was born in Hanley, which is in the Potteries district of Staffordshire. He was initially employed by his father, a solicitor, but reacted against the work and aged twenty-one moved to London, initially to again work as a solicitor’s clerk. However, he soon turned to writing popular serial fiction and editing a women’s magazine.
After publication of many articles and stories in serial form there came the publication of his first novel, 'A Man From the North' in 1898. This was received with critical acclaim. Thereafter, Bennett became a full time professional writer and soon moved to Paris where he became a man of cosmopolitan and discerning tastes. Later, his tastes and profligacy were to be criticised, but he was a man who appreciated the finer things in life, perhaps as a reaction to his austere upbringing and low wages when working for his father. Journalism, plays and novels, as well as the occasional non-fiction work, such as his still popular ‘How To Live On Twenty-four hours Per Day’, were all to feature in his subsequent career.
During the First World War Arnold Bennett became Director of Propaganda for France at the Ministry of Information at the behest of Lord Beaverbrook, who experiences during the First World War were to later inspire Bennett to write a novel, (‘Lord Raingo’), based on them. At the end of the war he was offered a knighthood, but refused it.
Bennett’s great reputation is built upon the success of his novels and short stories set in the Potteries, an area he recreated as the ‘Five Towns’. ‘Anna of the Five Towns’ and ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ show the influence of Flaubert, Maupassant and Balzac as Bennett describes provincial life in great detail. In this, Arnold Bennett is an important link between the English novel and European realism.
Many of his works were, and still are, regarded as masterpieces, but none more than ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ and ‘Riceyman Steps’, which were both highly acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. The popularity of his ‘Clayhanger’ series, along with that of the ‘Five Towns’ , have not waned since his death from typhoid at his London home, after a visit to France, in 1931.
‘Bennett writes magnificently of the little movements of the spirit in its daily routine’ – Margaret Drabble
‘In the Bennett novels – which at their finest stand up to anything Europe has put out – the artist towers above the man of ideas’ – Elizabeth Bowen