Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf

When I was browsing round Topping and Company Booksellers in Edinburgh, a few weeks ago, I came across an Arnold Bennett novel I hadn't read - The Grand Babylon Hotel.

I very much enjoy Arnold Bennett's novels, and was introduced to them when I was quite young, by my Dad, who was a big fan. I think he liked the fact that most of Bennett's novels are set in Staffordshire - Dad's home county. I remember reading Anna of the Five Towns and being informed that now there are actually six towns! Later when I worked in Stoke on Trent, I discovered this update for myself!

The Grand Babylon Hotel is however, somewhat different from Bennett's more typical novels. There's a hint of the Ruritanian novel, with Eastern European royalty, kidnapping, murder and intrigue. I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent romp and was interested to find out a bit more about the novel and its reception.

I wasn't surprised to find that the novel had been written in serial form and published weekly in the Golden Penny. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, so reminiscent of serialised novels.

What did surprise me was the acrimonious exchange between Virginia Woolf and Arnold Bennett which arose at the time of the publication of The Grand Babylon Hotel. Woolf wrote an essay - Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown. This essay is published in the beautiful Hogarth Press Essays of Virginia Woolf and she wrote "on or about December, 1910, human character changed" and proceeded to argue, without specifying the causes or nature of that change, that because human character had changed the novel must change if it were to be a true representation of human life.

Arnold Bennett had written that the Georgian (Woolf and her contemporaries) novelists, were "unable to create characters that are real, true and convincing". Woolf however, countered that the problem lay with the previous generation of novelists: the Edwardian novelists. She believed that although they were able to supply a great deal of detail, they lacked the ability to create complex characters. Woolf creates the character of Mrs Brown and imagines how the Edwardian novelist would deal with her and how little we would know of her character in their hands. Woolf states that the Edwardian novelist "scarcely attempted to deal with character except in its more generalised aspects"

It is here that not only does Mrs Woolf provide evidence against Mr Bennett, but also Mr Wells and Mr. Galsworthy too. Woolf uses the figure of Mrs. Brown to argue that H G Wells would act in ignorance and would project her as perfectly happy and would omit her poor dress and anxiousness. She implies that Mr. Galsworthy would simply ignore or discard her, and she asserts that Arnold Bennett would do his best to avoid her. Woolf boldly argues that Bennett, and the Edwardians in general, were materialists who were more preoccupied with outward details rather than the inner complexities of people and life. 

This exchange turned into a bitter feud and Arnold Bennett's reputation never really recovered. Woolf's Essay also destroyed Bennett's literary legacy.

I'm really glad my Dad loved Bennett, and hadn't read any Virginia Woolf, or I might not have enjoyed all of his novels, and especially The Grand Babylon Hotel.