Ah, literary realism, how thou mildly interests me.
Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns is a painfully middle-class English novel, with all that entails. What’s that, I hear you ask — and I’m all too happy to provide as long-winded an explanation as some of the descriptions within the novel. Before that, however, I feel the need to point out one fact:
Despite this novel seeking to present the perfectly ordinary everyday happenings of a small Victorian community, I wasn’t bored. I read it mainly in two sittings for my university course, Researching Literature, and I. Was. Not. Bored.
I enjoyed, as always, the view of Victorian society, the break-down between the social classes (as always, never shown but always hinted at). It’s all very prim and proper until you get to the English Potteries where the genteel mask of our middle-class characters slips away with such remarkable ease. Except, of course, for Ephram Tellwright, father of the eponymous Anna. Ephram is one of those interesting literary characters, easy to despise but also remarkable for the fact that they hold onto no pretenses of their own nature. Ephram’s nature is ugly – devilishly ugly…but he is honest about it, at least.
Now, then. What’re the major issues I take with this novel?
Anna’s meekness: here is a character so perfectly, painfully innocent that you can’t help feeling that she’s a cardboard cutout on which Bennett projects his vision of womanhood. It fits so well, my theory! Anna is the model of the Victorian woman, a dutiful mistress of the household who lives and dies by the responsibilities resting on her shoulders.
The way Willy Price is presented: Oh look at the poor people, they’re so meek and unfortunate! Yeah, no. That’s something I take issue with. Someone in Willy’s position wouldn’t be this accepting and timid – they’d be angry, they’d be pissed!
Really, it all boils down to the overuse of stereotypes. Bennett can’t step outside his I can’t blame him for this – it’s a marking of the time he lived and wrote in. But it makes the ‘realism’ label suspect.
And can I take a minute to disect the blurb on Goodreads for a minute? Listen ‘ere:
Anna, a woman of reserve and integrity, lives with her tyrannical and selfish father. Courted for her money by the handsome and successful Henry Mynors, Anna defies her father’s wrath–with tragic results. Set in the Potteries against a background of dour Wesleyan Methodism, Anna of the Five Towns is a brilliantly perceptive novel of provincial life in Victorian England.
Time and again, we readers are told by Bennett that Mynors is courting Anna because he truly loves her and money doesn’t even come into his considerations — there’s a scene, about 90% into the book, in which money enters into Henry’s considerations, in fact, and it’s very obvious how it affects him.
And “Anna defies her father’s wrath – with tragic results.” What?! Who wrote this?! She defies her father, aye, true enough – but only after tragedy has striken. And “defies her father’s wrath” isn’t correct, either; it’s her defying his will that causes old Ephram’s wrath – but the man is a sexist tyrant and a miser, everything causes his wrath!
Whoever wrote this blurb needs to be severely mocked, is my pronouncement. As for the book? Three stars, thank you very much. Maybe slightly less? 2.95/5? 2.75? Ah, well.
It’s an okay read – and if you’re in love with Victorian England and its middle class, you will just LOVE this. My professional interest in this novels extends no further than…mild enjoyment, however.
Make of that what you will.