On 8th July City Voices celebrated 150 years of Arnold Bennett with Dr. Leslie Powner, Honorary Research Fellow at Keele University. Leslie provided an introduction to Bennett's life, work and popular reputation, including readings from two of his short stories "The Heroism of Thomas Chadwick" and "Death, Fire, and Life" which focus mainly on Bennett’s depiction of Potteries characters and places. To “old skool” Potters it may seem inconceivable that there might be anyone interested in literature (or born in the Potteries) who are not familiar with Bennett’s work. We must remember however that Arnold Bennett was born in 1867, and died in 1931 which is before most of City Voices members were born. There was a TV series of his “Clayhanger” trilogy, but even that was back in the 1970’s. So Leslie was aware that there were some people who never heard of Bennett, let alone read his work.
Bennett's output was prodigious but by his own admission, was about maximising his income. As Bennett put it: “Am I to sit still and see other fellows pocketing two guineas apiece for stories which I can do better myself? Not me. If anyone imagines my sole aim is art for art’s sake, they are cruelly deceived”
Bennett’s contemporaries, notably Virginia Wolf, criticised his work. To her and other Bloomsbury authors Bennett represented the "old guard". His style was traditional, which made him an obvious target for those who liked to present themselves as challenging literary conventions. Bennett regarded the Bloomsburys as decadents, whose ideas and life-style were as far removed from “ordinary” people as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West might seem to us! (Unlike today, not many people sought to emulate celebraties)
It was not until the 1990s that a more positive view of his work was generaly accepted.
I think that Leslie won over anyone who was unaware of Bennett with his excellent reading skills, and in fact we had been given a taster of Bennett in a reading a couple of weeks before. His characters are quite brilliant – funny, pathetic, overbearing, ambitious, desperate and all too human. The descriptions of a Potteries which is still within living memory, yet long-gone, make the books very real. The challenge for City Voices Members now is to write a short story in the style of the great man himself. Leslie will be returning to CV on 28th October for a workshop and maybe a read-around of our stories. A real challenge this one!