Anna of the Five Townsby Published 30 Jul 2008
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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. Newly designed and typeset in a modern 6-by-9-inch format by Waking Lion Press.
Anna of the Five Towns Reviews
A plot summary would make this short, but perfectly formed novel sound parochial, unoriginal and maybe dull. It is not. Bennett is a wonderful observer and writer of the small-scale aspects that make life real and characters spring to life. He's also pretty good at writing female characters. In fact, by far the weakest character is male: the faultless Henry Mynors.
In many ways, my life is utterly different from Anna's, but in some key ways, I can identify with her more than I might wish to.
This book is rather like a factory Anna visits: "No stage of the manufacture was incredible by itself, but the result was incredible."
This isn't one of his lightly humorous books (The Grand Babylon Hotel and The Card).
Instead, it features a profoundly nasty man, who never lays a finger on anyone or commits any crime.
Setting and Plot
It's as simple as it says on the back of the book: it's set in the English potteries district, in the early 20th century. Anna Tellwright is about to come of age, and lives with her wealthy, miserly, twice-widowed father (Ephraim) and young half sister (Agnes) in a Methodist-dominated town. Ephraim "existed within himself, unrevealed" even to Anna.
Anna is dutiful, naive, lonely: "the peculiarity of her position... awe and pity were equally mingled" and unfamiliarity with social situations mean she is not "a facile talker".
She inherits money, is taken under the wing of the Suttons, is courted by up-and-coming Henry Mynors, still cares about the fate of the less fortunate (Titus Price and his adult son, Willie), and is very unsure of herself. When invited to a sewing party, she is baffled by the etiquette: "Should she arrive early, in which case she would have to talk more, or late, in which case there would be the ordeal of entering a crowded room?" Who of us has not felt a similar dilemma, even with more experience?
However, she is not mistress of her own destiny, and that is where the tension springs from.
What is love?
Anna's stirrings of love, her excitement and uncertainty ring very true: "the man whose arm she could have touched... She had felt happy and perturbed in being so near him... already she knew his face by heart."
She is afraid and excited, and everything looks different, "She saw how miserably narrow, tepid and trickling the stream of her life had been.. Now it gushed forth warm, impetuous and full." She is even tempted to neglect her duty to her family (only in trivial ways).
Henry calms many of her fears: he's wonderful with Agnes, and even with her father - teasing the former, and braving the latter (even daring to ask for more beef).
However, just when she should be happiest, she feels "no ineffable rapture, not ecstatic bliss." Despite her yearnings, Anna lacks passion, whether for a man or for God (see the Revival section, below). She tries to live as if she has it for both, hoping it will become true.
I also questioned Henry's love for Anna: he seems too perfect and, given his strong religious faith, oddly unperturbed by her lack of conviction (though her dedication is admirable).
Anna's love of her sister is unquestioned and unquestioning, but her feelings about her manipulative father are more complex: "The worst tyrannies of her father never dulled the sense of her duty to him."
Ephraim Tellwright is a former Methodist preacher, but he's a very un-Christian emotional bully. The love of money is perhaps the root of his evil. He is a canny investor, a harsh landlord, and spends almost nothing, so his wealth has accumulated, and he's very proud of how well he's managed Anna's inheritance before she came of age.
He is shrewd and crafty. He simultaneously minimises his donation to the Sunday school and entraps his indebted tenant by promising to match the tenant's donation. He will also "promise repairs [only] in change for payment of arrears which he knew would never be paid". When he hands Anna's inheritance over, he really does no such thing. He makes her pay cheques in, forces her to write letters against her will, and ensures she daren't ask for a penny for herself. When she wants her cheque book, so she can buy a few clothes to go on holiday with the Suttons, he refuses.
Anna's own attitude to money is very different: she makes all her own clothes, has no servant or carriage, and uses nothing on her hair. "The arrival of money out of space, unearned, unasked, was a disturbing experience." "She wanted to test the actuality of this apparent dream by handling a coin and causing it to vanish over counters." The trouble is, she's now too rich to ask her father for any of his money, but she can't use her own, as he's tied her into a business agreement with someone. On holiday with the Suttons, she is startled by their "amazing habit of always buying the best of everything."
It's not only money that makes him mean. Anna and Agnes live in fear of his temper. His "terrible displeasure permeated the whole room like an ether, invisible but carrying vibrations to the heart." The mindset behing his bullying misogyny are chillingly exposed: "The women of the household were the natural victims of their master" who had "certain rights over the self-respect, the happiness, the peace of the defenceless souls set under him." When she is engaged, he claims her suitor is only after her money.
Anna has been raised a Methodist and teaches in Sunday School, but feels like an outsider as she's never had a conversion experience. Guilt is not just a prerogative of Roman Catholics.
There is excitement at the prospect of a campaign, featuring a famous preacher with an "ineffably wicked" past: "the faint rumour of that dead wickedness clung to his name like a piquant odour".
In preparation, Anna visits the families of Sunday School children and "found joy in the uncongenial and ill-performed task", both as a penance and because Henry asked her to do it.
In the service, he "had two audiences: God and the congregation". The mesmerising techniques, Biblical exhortations, emotional pressure, guilt, and concern are carefully described: I didn't quite believe (in) him, but wasn't certain that he was a charlatan either: "he had an extraordinary histrionic gift and he used it with imagination".
Poor Anna "was in despair at her own predicament and the sense of sin was not more strong than the sense of being confused and publicly shamed... She heaped up all the wickedness of a lifetime... and found horrid pleasure in the exaggeration... She had never doubted... Jesus died on the cross to save her soul... What then was lacking?" She is tormented by whether to go forward as a penitent, and more, by the knowledge she can't.
When she most needs faith, it fails her. She can't turn to Henry, because he is too pure
I have been Anna. I know all those services, techniques and
feelings. I am now free (despite a painful glimpse back, via this book), and I wanted her to be too.
The key part of the plot is a factory, now owned by Anna, that is rented by Titus Price, a feckless man, deep in debt, with a sweet but ineffectual son, Willie.
Ephraim is keen for Anna to keep squeezing them for the rent arrears - a task Anna is not comfortable with. Worse still, [spoilers removed] From this, everything in Anna's life is jeopardised.
Gasp! I didn't expect or want a clichéd happy ending or a shockingly tragic one, but I wasn't expecting this, and I'm not sure how I'd describe it (a bit of both?), so I won't!
Anna believes "A woman's life is always a renunciation" (not necessarily of what the reader expects). I don't think Arnold Bennett believes it should be, though. He was a man ahead of his time.
The men (some shirtless) working alongside women in the pottery works was a surprise. More surprising still, was good Christians deliberately providing opportunity for a couple (not even engaged) to spend time alone together. Mind you, she did wear a "skirt which showed three inches of ankle"!
Maybe my history is at fault, though; this was published in 1902, so it just sneaks into the Edwardian, rather than Victorian category.
Quotes - Scenery and Atmosphere
Most of Bennett's books are set in the area he knew well. He portrays small town politics, industry, rivalries, and even makes factories seem beautiful.
"Burning ironstone glowed with all the strange colours of decadence... unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime... enchanted air... a romantic scene"!
The towns are "forbidding of aspect - sombre, hard-featured, uncouth; and the vaporous poison of their ovens and chimneys had soiled and shrivelled the surrounding country" to a "gaunt and ludicrous travesty of rural charms". This then segues into something rather different: "embrace the whole smoke-girt amphitheatre... this disfigurement is merely an episode in the unending warfare of man and nature and calls for no contrition... Nature is repaid for some of her notorious cruelties."
Factories can be cruel, though. The women paintresses, a few "die of lead poisoning - a fact which adds pathos to their frivolous charm. One paints nothing but circles, the "summit of monotony... stupendous phenomenon of absolute sameness."
Of those visiting a new park, "people going up to criticize and enjoy this latest outcome of municipal enterprise... housewives whose pale faces, as of prisoners free only for a while, showed a naive and timorous pleasure in this unusual diversion; young women made glorious by richly coloured stuffs and carrying themselves with the defiant independence of good wages... a small well-dressed group whose studious repudiation of the crowd betrayed a conscious eminence of rank."
* Leaving Sunday School, the teachers "gradually dropping the pedagogic pose, and happy in the virtual sensation of a duty accomplished."
* An ageing and charitable woman's "bodily frame long ago proved inadequate to the ceaseless demands of a spirit of indefatigably altruistic, and her continuance in activity was notable illustration of the dominion of mind over matter."
* A young woman of 20 "had the lenient curves of absolute maturity."
* A man of 30 had "the elasticity of youth with the firm wisdom of age."
* A spinster "was lovable, but had never been loved... found compensation for the rigour of destiny in gossip, as innocent as indiscreet."
* "It seemed a face for the cloister... resigned and spiritual melancholy peculiar to women who through the error of destiny have been born into a wrong environment."
* "unconsciously-acquired arrogance of one who had always been accustomed to deference."
* "the quiet enchantment of reverie. Her mind... ranged voluptuously free."
* An old dresser: "Seventy years of continuous polishing by a dynasty of priestesses of cleanliness" looked "as though it had never been new."
* "The double happiness of present and anticipated pleasure."
* Bad news spreads: "All knew of the calamity, and had received from it a new interest in life."
Old fashioned spellings:
As everybody knows there are just two types of people in the world, however as many suspect, there is some disagreement as to who they are. Some say the rich and the poor, others the hungry and the fed, a few with a touch of whimsy might suggest women and men, or old and young. If however you've a sense of the depth and breadth of the division between the reserved and the expansive, then you can appreciate the muted tones of this book.
This is a novel in which small things said, or not said, count for a lot. It is a novel of small, tight, gestures. Every action, every word is braced under the weight of the everyday lives of the characters. Even the geographical scope of the novel is muted from the five towns, Bennet's fictionalised version of the six towns which eventually and, reluctantly, became Stoke-on-Trent, to the Isle of Man [spoilers removed]. Our heroine is so locked in by the spirit of self-denial that no amount of money can ever allow her meaningful freedom from herself which is ironic given the course of the plot .
I visited the Wedgwood Factory-Museum in Stoke many a year ago and was very pleased to see the that the young woman who was doing the painted hand-finishing to the crocks was as finely and brightly dressed as the women doing the same work are described in this novel. And I particularly like the offhand manner in which the end of a character is wrapped up appropriately for a book in which the characters are over shadowed by the power of money.
This is a proper hard novel. Compromises are the best a character can hope for, happiness is not to be achieved in the five towns, leastwise not by the characters we are shown, though as the author's life demonstrated - sometimes it is possible to leave.
How do I explain why this is so very good? I do not want to wreck the story for you, and thus not too much should be revealed!
This book is good at the beginning, but it gets better and better as you go. At the start, I made guesses about where the story was leading. Some of my guesses proved to be wrong!
Bleak and grim are the appropriate adjectives to be used when describing this book. This may not suit all readers; this is meant as a word of warning. The writing is so effective, so atmospheric and builds with such force that I do not mind the gloom and the imminent feel of tragedy. What is described feels real and honest and “this-is-how-it-would-be”, so for me, perfectly right!
Is it contemporary writing? No, absolutely not.
One must pay attention to every word. Each word is there for a reason; every word counts. Arnold Bennett’s writing is unsentimental. This makes what happens bearable. I like the sparsity of the prose. This forces you to pay attention and makes you think.
The setting of the tale is the late 1800s, middle England, Staffordshire. The towns spoken of in the title go by aliases in the novel. They are in reality Turnstall , Hanley, Burslem, Stoke, Fenton and Longton. You will exclaim—but that is six! Bennett eliminated Fenton because he felt the title sounded better with the word five rather than six. In this way Fenton has come to known as “the forgotten town”. Anna, of the title, is of Bursley, the alias of Burslem. It is a pottery town.
The book wonderfully describes the town “potteries”, the area, the era, the people and the pervading social climate. How people, women and men and individuals of different social standing, were expected to behave is made clearly evident.
Should one read this story for plot or for character portrayal? For both or for either. Each character is well drawn. This makes you need to know what will happen to them, making plot equally important!
The eponymous Anna is the central character. Her mother is dead. She runs the household for her miserly father, and has a younger sister named Agnes to whom she is as a mother. Anna is of the marrying age and has inherited money from a grandfather. The problem is she does not know a thing about money. She has been taught to obey, to follow instructions, to do as told and certainly not to think. Her father is as much a central character as she is. If you want to read a book having a character on which to vent your anger, read this book. I immensely detested this man. For this reason alone, I rooted for Anna. There is an assortment of other characters, some kind, some pitiable, some a mix of good and bad attributes often circumscribed by their situation. A good spread of characters, giving a realistic picture of townsfolk in the time and geographical area depicted.
I thought a lot about Anna’s inability to feel the sentiments of love and passion. I view this an important element of the story. Why is she this way? Why did she feel as she did about her suitor? Why was she drawn to both him and then [spoilers removed]? Isn’t it understandable that she should first feel [spoilers removed]? So yes, character portrayal is an essential part of the story.
Caring for the characters as I did, I needed to also know what would happen to them and how the story would end.
The ending. As stated before, you must pay attention. If you do not, you will miss what has happened. Don’t read the next spoiler if you plan on reading the book! Anna’s love [spoilers removed] I listened/reread the end several times. Much happens as one approaches the end. The ending is not confusing, but it pushes you stop and think. Is it necessary to reevaluate the conclusions one should draw? Not all is spelled out. I love such endings.
The villagers speak in a brogue that was at times difficult for me to comprehend. I always wanted to understand, so I always listened again. The words are made more difficult by the over-dramatization by the audiobook’s narrator. I hesitate to recommend the audiobook narrated by Peter Joyce. I am fine with enhancing a book’s ambiance through authentically replicating spoken brogue, but only if every word can be clearly deciphered. I often went back and listened several times. A good narration should not demand this. Furthermore, Joyce exaggerates the intonations of the wicked and mean and even some of the elderly, making them sound like witches. Children are not properly intoned either. Only those who want an audiobook read with lots of dramatization could possibly like this narration. In a generous mood, I am willing to give the narration at the most two stars.
I will be reading more by Arnold Bennett. In his youth he lived in the area described here. This shows. My next book by the author will be The Old Wives' Tale.
Arnold Bennett's powerful story of love, tyranny and rebellion set against the vitality and harshness of life in the Staffordshire Potteries in the late nineteenth century, dramatised by Helen Edmundson.
Brought up in the repressive tradition of Methodism by her miserly father, Anna Tellwright dreams of independence and freedom. On coming of age she learns that she is to inherit a fortune and realises that she is loved by the charismatic Henry Mynors. But with the money comes responsibility and a growing bond with one of her tenants William Price.
Anna Tellwright is one of my favourite heroines, coming a close third after Emma Bovary and Tess Durbeyfield. Arnold Bennett, like Hardy, depicts his heroine with warmth and affection, compassionate in her suffering and tolerant of her faults. Writing this novel before D.H. Lawrence's Brangwen novels were published, but working with similar settings, characters and themes, Bennett puts before us poor, narrow-minded and bigoted communities, but he never loses his sense of fun, exaggerating Ephraim's accent, drawing our attention to idiosyncracies of dress and behaviour in his characters and letting, with some enjoyment, those in the wrong arrive at their just desserts. Only at the end is there a wistful sense of his inability to change the course he has plotted for Anna... but I won't give that away.