Arnold Bennett

Arnold Bennett

Arnold Bennett, the son of a solicitor, was born in Hanley, Staffordshire, in 1867. Educated locally and at London University, he became a solicitor's clerk, but later transferred to journalism, and in 1893 became assistant editor of the journal Woman.

Bennett published his first novel The Man from the North in 1898. This was followed by Anna of the Five Towns (1902), The Old Wives' Tale (1908), Clayhanger (1910), The Card (1911) and Hilda Lessways (1911).

Soon after the outbreak of the First World War, Charles Mastermanthe head of the War Propaganda Bureau (WPB) invited twenty-five leading British authors to Wellington House, to discuss ways of best promoting Britain's interests during the war. Those who attended the meeting included Bennett, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Masefield, Ford Madox Ford, William Archer, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Gilbert Parker, G. M. Trevelyan and H. G. Wells.

Bennett soon became one of the most important figures in this secret organisation. His first contribution to the propaganda effort was Liberty: A Statement of the British Case. It first appeared as an article in the Saturday Evening Post. In December it was expanded and published as a pamphlet by the War Propaganda Bureau. To disguise the fact it was a government publication, the WPB used the Hodder and Stoughton imprint.

When George Bernard Shaw, who was unaware of the existence of the War Propaganda Bureau, attacked what he believed to be jingoistic articles and poems being produced by British writers during the war, Bennett was the one chosen to defend their actions in the press.

In June, 1915, the WPB arranged for Bennett to tour the Western Front. Bennett was deeply shocked by the conditions in the trenches and was physically ill for several weeks afterwards. His friend, Frank Swinnerton, later recalled, "he visited the front as a duty, and was horrified at what he saw and felt that he must not express that horror." Bennett agreed to provide an account of the war that would encourage men to join the British Army. The result was the pamphlet, Over There: War Scenes on the Western Front (1915).

In March, 1918, Lord Beaverbrook, the new Minister of Information, recruited Bennett and Charles Masterman to join his new three-man British War Memorial Committee (BWMC). Their job was to select artists to produce paintings that would help the war effort. Bennett was also appointed director of British propaganda in France.

After the war Bennett returned to writing novels such as Riceyman Steps (1923) and Imperial Palace (1930). Bennett also became a director of the New Statesman. Arnold Bennett died in 1931.

Primary Sources

(1) In his diary, Arnold Bennett described the first meeting of the War Propaganda Bureau at Wellington House on 2nd September, 1914.

Masterman in the chair. Zangwill talked a great deal too much. The sense was talked by Wells and Chesterton. Rather disappointed in Gilbert Murray, but I like the look of little R. H. Benson. Masterman directed pretty well, and Claude Schuster and the Foreign Office representative were not bad. Thomas Hardy was all right.

(2) In a letter to the New Statesman in September, 1914, Arnold Bennett defended the patriotic writings that had been attacked by George Bernard Shaw in Common Sense About the War.

As war is preeminently an affair of human nature, a triumph of instict over reason, it seems to me not improper that serious novelists (who are supposed to know a little about human nature and to be able to observe accurately and to write) should be permitted to express themselves concerning the phenomenon of a nation at war without being insulted.

(3) In his autobiography, Father Figures, Kingsley Martin describes Arnold Bennett appointing him editor of the New Statesman in 1930.

Arnold Bennett was a director of the New Statesman and immensely proud of being a director of the Savoy Hotel as well. He wrote about it as the Grand Babylon. I still think he was one of the best novelists of his age, but perhaps he has an even more certain fame because he gave his name to some dishes which you can get in smart restaurants. He was one of the very kindest of men, with a formidable stutter. He would begin a sentence and stop. If you looked at him you found yourself staring straight down his gullet. He gave a lunch party to the other directors at the Savoy, at the same time rather embarrassingly putting me through my paces.

"What are your... p-p-politics?"

I said, rather too timidly, for I did not know his politics, that I should call myself a Socialist. "I should hope so," said Bennett, as if it would be disgraceful to be anything else.

I was appointed editor only just before Arnold Bennett died, unexpectedly and I believe unnecessarily. I persuaded the board to appoint David Low in his place; that was the beginning of a long friendship.

Anna of the Five Towns is available from Amazon
Anna of the Five Towns is available from Amazon