Каминяр Дмитрий Генаддьевич: другие произведения.

The Detailed Realism in "Anna of The Five Towns"

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Dmitri Kaminiar
Student #995059083
H.B. de Groot

The detailed realism in "Anna of the Five Towns"

On September 15, 1902, George Sturt wrote to Arnold Bennett:

"You make an inventory of the furniture in Annas kitchen: you interrupt for that purpose an interview which obviously was of a most crucial nature. But while you give three pages to the inventory, you can spare less than a page to the interview, and when it is over, the reader feels dished, because something must have happened - some interchange between Mynors and Anna - which you have said nothing about. Were these trivial sentences which they exchanged really all? Or if not, was it worth while to spend so much time in describing the colour of the dresser that you had no space left even for the colour of Annas face or whatever might manifest her feelings at the time?" (Letter of 15 September 1902, Arnold Bennett: The Critical Heritage, pg. 160)

Sturts questions, it should be said, struck at the key matter of the Bennetts novel structure (and not just "Anna of the Five Towns", as Virginia Woolf noted later in her musings): Bennett does indeed dedicate a large amount of space on the pages of "Anna" to passive description of places, objects and such like, over the active actions, such as dialogue or description of the activities of characters, and so on. By examining various parts of "Anna", this essay is going to show how this feature of Bennetts writing style helps the author get his point to the books readers.

Now, the description of the dresser in Annas room is one of the more famous - or infamous examples of Bennett apparently getting carried away by his love of describing places and objects and even people - such as his description of the painting girl on pages 120-1. This description lasts for a paragraph that goes over a page - all to describe a female worker in Mynors pottery factory who will contribute nothing to the storys development other than to provide a background to Mynors courting of Anna. Conversely, though, there is equally massive summary of the life of Mr. Tellwright; in fact, the biography lasts for roughly five pages, composed of massive blocks of written paragraphs, all dedicated to the life of Mr. Tellwright, but also of his daughters, Agnes and Anna. But yet, the professional readers of the novel would not call these paragraphs unnecessary, nor would they feel a need to criticize Arnold Bennett over them, because these paragraphs are important, they summarize the history of the Tellwright family history and if they do cover four pages of the chapter "The Misers Daughter", then compared with some of the modern pieces of fiction, which sometimes dedicate whole chapters (or more) of their narration to the family history of their protagonists, "Anna of Five Town" does seem to be much more precise and coming to the point than before.

Nonetheless, putting all comparisons of the past and present literature aside, there may be other factors that could have influenced Bennetts writing style of "Anna" and other novels: the very characteristics of the novel genre that was in the past, before him, the writing style of his contemporaries. In the past - at the time when Bennett was writing "Anna of the Five Towns" and his other works - the idea behind the novel was something of what contemporary culture identifies as a Harlequin romance or a similar literary work, not something as serious and sombre as "Anna" is. Whether we like him or not, Arnold Bennett was making something of a breakthrough in the world of literature as we presently know it, as he started to create some of the earliest novels, as we know them today. Arnold Bennett was one of the first authors to write anything that even remotely approached the modern novel fiction, and, like with all pioneers, his own work seems rather bizarre, clumsy and old-fashioned to us today. However, to our predecessors, such as Virginia Woolf, Bennett seems to be one of the best Edwardian writers, as compared to Wells optimistic Utopism or Galsworthys gloomy social realism. (Woolf, Virginia. Essays, Vol. III, pg. 428)

Yet, the factor of Bennetts literary inexperience brings to mind the following idiom: a picture is worth a thousand words. It is easy to write short paragraphs when your characters are as developed as Haywoods "Phantomina", which has a completely unrealistic plot and characters, but with Bennett, the situation is quite different. Take, for example, the description of Anna on page 19:

Anna Tellwright ... was tall, but unusually so, and sturdily built up. Her figure, though the bust was a little flat, had the lenient curves of absolute maturity. Anna ... wore a plain, home-made light frock checked with brown and edged with brown velvet, thin cotton gloves of cream colour, and a broad straw hat like her sisters. Her grave face, owing to the prominence of the cheekbones and the width of the jaw, had a slight angularity; the lips were thin, the brown eyes rather large, the eyebrows level, the nose fine and delicate; the ears could scarcely be seen for the dark brown hair which was brushed diagonally across the temples, leaving of the forehead only a pale triangle ... peculiar to the women who through the error of destiny have been born into a wrong environment.
("Anna of the Five Towns", 19)

At a first look-over, this first description of Anna seems to be unnecessarily drawn-out, especially the last part "...peculiar to the women who through the error of destiny have been born into a wrong environment." What does it matter, a reader like Sturt or Woolf may ask, whether or not Annas face looks fit for a cloister? The answer is surprising: Bennett honestly may not have known better. Unlike even the same aforementioned Sturt or Woolf, he did not have any worthwhile examples to imitate, especially since he was writing something completely different from either Wells science fiction or Galsworthys political realism - but that is besides the point; the point is that a picture was always worth a thousand words, and lacking the ability to illustrate his work, Bennett had to describe his characters - Anna, her family, Mynors, Willie and his father, etc, using the same thousand words - for example, he used around two hundred words to describe Anna the first time his audience was to "meet" her: maybe it was his writing style, or maybe he was trying to ensure that she made the right impression for her first meeting for the readers.

Then there are supporting facts that Bennett did not really need to write such long, drawn-out descriptions when he probably felt that they were unnecessary to be described to his contemporaries, his initial readers. As one of these supporting facts, the chapter "The Isle" shows this quite clearly: its thirty-two pages are practically devoid of Bennetts overlarge paragraphs, and practically this entire chapter is about action as Anna, Mynors and the Sutton family spend their holiday on the Isle of Man. Within these thirty-two pages, Anna and Mynors explore the islands countryside, Beatrice Sutton falls ill, and Mynors proposes to Anna - and it is all in this chapter, generating about as much action as any other chapter. Yet "The Isle" chapter is concentrated and "streamlined" not unlike some of our own, contemporary novels; the chapter shows that Bennett can write precisely and to the point when he feels it is necessary. The other side to it is that his dialogues are still appearing rather short and not very informative:

I hope youve done some decent work this afternoon, he said to Beatrice.
I havent, she replied shortly; I havent done a stroke.
But you said you were going to paint hard!
Well, I didnt.
Then why couldnt you have gone to Port St. Mary, instead of breaking your fond fathers heart by a refusal?
He didnt want me, really.
Anna interjected: I think he did, Bee
("Anna of the Five Towns" 168)

And it goes in this vein for about the same number of lines afterwards, telling the avid reader about the same amount of information as the quoted lines: the dialogue is terse, short, very brief and to the point - so to the point, in fact, that if a reader does not understand the hidden meanings of the book, he will just not understand what the characters of "Anna" are talking about. This appearance of events, that Bennett is just unable to write a literary dialogue, too may be a result of relying on such literary works as "Phantomina" of times past, where the dialogue was absent, or "Joseph Andrews", where the dialogue was still barely distinguished from the main body of the text. It should be noted that the literary works of his contemporary authors, such as "The Time Traveller" of H.G. Wells, also have large blocks of descriptive narration and very short dialogues, yet he is not criticized for this.

The final proof that the odd appearance of the text of "Anna" is the result not of Bennett personally but of his literary/reading experience, is in the last chapter of the novel, "End of a Simple Soul". It goes for barely more than 2 pages, but not unlike "The Isle", it is almost all about action and dialogues, only the last paragraph is done Bennetts trademark style: massive and solid, quite different from the rest of the chapter, and more like the descriptive paragraphs from the rest of the book. Consequently, it contains as much, if not more information as the rest of the chapter combined: it finally tells the readers that Anna never really loved Mynors as she loved Willie Price, but that she married him all the same because it was her feminine duty. Conversely, the dialogue that takes most of the previous page reveals nothing as important as that, appearing to the eye of some careless readers as largely comprised of some pointless banter, even if it is really just as important to the novel as the large descriptive paragraph:

Have you heard? he asked simply.
About what? she whispered.
About my poor father.
Yes. I was hoping - hoping that you would never know.
By a common impulse, they went into the garden of the Priory, and he shut the door.
Never know? he repeated. Oh! They took care to tell me.
("Anna of the Five Towns", 234)

And so it goes on for the rest of the page: short, one-sentence dialogues, that seem to convey only the points of each interlocutors emotions, that somehow go over the head of their opposite: Anna realizes much too late that the love she feels for Willie Pryce is not motherly and Willie himself is "stung to revolt only in [his] last hour" (236) - i.e. the dialogue has failed, the pre-destined lives of Anna and Mynors and other inhabitants of the Five Towns went-on practically unchanged, and Willies sacrifice was basically in vain, instigating the wrath of D.H. Lawrence among other things. Yet the fault for the way that this fact was told to the readers is not Arnold Bennetts: his dialogues may be brief, abrupt, somewhat vague and so on, but they contain as much information as the descriptive paragraphs, only they are harder to be understood by an average, casual reader, whose attention is deficient and bores easily. That is not the fault of only Arnold Bennett either, but also the readers, to say it honestly.

Therefore, it is time to conclude our analysis of the novels literary style and its flaw as indicated - not incorrectly - by George Sturt. "Were these trivial sentence they exchanged really all?" (Letter of 15 September 1902, Arnold Bennett: The Critical Heritage, pg. 160) Yes, but these sentences were not trivial, at least not by Arnold Bennetts intentions: as seen from the last chapter, his dialogues may be brief and rather unimpressive to read, but they are concise and informative, as they bring Bennetts written messages over to the readers, and if the readers cannot understand them, it can hardly be Bennetts alone. In addition, "was it worth while to spend so much colour of the oak dresser that you had no space left even for the colour of Annas face ... might manifest her feelings at the time?" (Letter of 15 September 1902, Arnold Bennett: The Critical Heritage, pg. 160) No, it was not, as Bennett tried to do something larger than just a novel about Annas maturating into adulthood: he was trying to bring to life the life of the entire Five Towns, not just the immediate surroundings of Anna and other characters; he was trying to write realism without any political messages, as Galsworthy would probably written. Bennett was a literary pioneer of sorts, as said above, and like all pioneers, he could not avoid making mistakes that would appear absurd in later times, but were unavoidable in his. Therefore, the fact that he managed to write a very successful and well-known novel despite these differences make his literary talent only greater and more successful than it is actually admitted.

The end.

Works Cited

Bennett, Arnold. Anna of the Five Towns, London: Penguin Classics, 2001.
Letter of 15 September 1902, Arnold Bennett: The Critical Heritage.

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