Over ninety years since his death, with whatever reputation he once enjoyed long since shot to pieces, it can be difficult to convey the extent of Arnold Bennett’s near-paralysing celebrity to a modern reader. It was not just that his novels sold in their hundreds of thousands, that by the late 1920s he was being paid the fabulous sum of half a crown a word or that his literary journalism reached a vast constituency of book-buyers who would not otherwise have known that literary journalism existed. It was also that, to a middlebrow audience who took their opinions from mass-market newspapers, he was the living embodiment of what, by the cultural standards of the interwar era, was meant by ‘success’.
Material standards, too. Bennett’s income (a phenomenal £22,000 in 1929 at a time when a bank clerk might earn £200), Bennett’s ambrosial dinners in high-end restaurants (the Savoy still advertises Omelette Arnold Bennett on its menu card), Bennett’s hobnobbings with the great and good: all these are, or rather were, the stuff of legend. Evelyn Waugh gestures at some of the clouds of gossip column glory that hung around him in the closing pages of Decline and Fall (1928), where Paul Pennyfeather, now back at Oxford, narrowly avoids being run over by a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce containing the mysterious figure of Philbrick, one-time butler at the north Wales private school at which Paul has previously drudged. ‘Who was your opulent friend?’ Pennyfeather’s chum Stubbs enquires. ‘Arnold Bennett,’ Paul mischievously returns. Waugh, naturally, is having a little fun with an Olympian figure whom he would have regarded as the last word in staidness, but as a piece of cultural positioning the scene is highly convincing. Bennett, it is safe to say, was exactly the kind of writer who would have been seen bowling along Oxford High Street in a Rolls-Royce as the undergraduates scattered before him. Like many another mainstream novelist from the early 20th century, when mass communications and mass literacy combined to expand literary audiences, he made no bones about enjoying the fruits of bestsellerdom. In this lay the seeds of his altogether catastrophic undoing.
No one cultivated his personal myth more assiduously than the Hanley-born pawnbroker’s son did. Equally, as Patrick Donovan demonstrates in this absorbing biography (the first since Margaret Drabble’s Arnold Bennett in 1974), the angle from which Bennett (1867–1931) liked to regard his early career, with the emphasis on hard