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‘Arnold Bennett was born in a street called Hope Street. A street less hopeful it would be hard to imagine.’ Thus begins Margaret Drabble’s biography of a man whose most famous achievement was to re-create, in such novels as The Old Wives’ Tale and Clayhanger, the life, atmosphere and character of the ‘Five Towns’ region in which he was born and grew up.
Arnold Bennett is a very personal book. ‘What interests me’, writes the author, ‘is Bennett’s background, his childhood and origins, for they are very similar to my own. My mother’s family came from the Potteries, and the Bennett novels seem to me to portray a way of life that still existed when I was a child, and indeed persists in certain areas. So like all books this has been partly an act of self-exploration.’
Of Bennett as a writer Drabble says ‘The best books I think are very fine indeed, on the highest level, deeply moving, original and dealing with material that I had never before encountered in fiction, but only in life: I feel they have been underrated, and my response to them is so constant, even after years of work on them and constant re-readings, that I want to communicate enthusiasm.’
Of Bennett as a man she paints an affectionate portrait, not glossing over the irritability, dyspepsia and rigidity which at times made him so difficult a companion but reminding us too of his honesty, kindliness and sensitivity. ‘Many a time,’ she writes at the end of the book, ‘re-reading a novel, reading a letter or a piece of his Journal, I have wanted to shake his hand, or to thank him, to say well done. I have written this instead.’
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