Last month we read “Anna of the Five Towns” by Arnold Bennett with mixed views at our recent meeting. Some did not like the book at all and others, although reluctant at first, were glad they had read it. A small number enjoyed it from the start.
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Quite a few people thought the early part slow, a bit heavy and grim, but enjoyed the descriptions of the town and the pottery industry, which Bennett knew well from his own experience. The passages where the working people went to the newly opened Park in their leisure time to listen to the band and stroll about were thought to be a much needed lightening of atmosphere and a contrast to the gloomy earlier feeling. Similarly, the Sunday School Treat for the children and their teachers provided a light hearted moment in a story which centres on a naïve, overly dutiful young woman.
Anna is the repressed oldest daughter of a former Methodist preacher who is an emotional bully. He is also a miser, obsessed with spending as little as possible and is proud of his management of Anna’s inheritance until now, when she has reached her majority. She had been completely unaware of this money. Although he seems to hand over this inheritance he really does no such thing, merely sending her to the bank to collect cheque book, passbook etc, then taking them from her, only allowing her to pay cheques into the bank, refusing her money for herself, even when she is to go on holiday with the Sutton family. He ties up a considerable amount of her income in a business agreement with Henry Mynors who runs a pottery, assumes Anna will do as she is told, which she does, signing the agreement in complete ignorance of any significance. It was thought by the group that Ephraim Tellwright was in all likelihood, just continuing the attitude towards his womenfolk that he had witnessed from his own childhood and youth, and perhaps a measure of pity could be given, especially as he says at one point that he has “never been happy”. We thought this all harked back to Victorian attitudes and that it didn’t reflect the more feminist activities i.e. the Suffragette movement, going strong by 1902 when the book was written.
The Suttons are a wealthy family and Anna is befriended by the daughter Beatrice, an indulged young woman in contrast to Anna, who has no servants and makes her own clothes. Anna is shown to be very unsure of herself in social situations with the Suttons and others, for example the sewing group of ladies, and is confused as to how to act. They encourage Anna to form a relationship with Henry Mynors and this is a major strand in the story. Henry is a stalwart of the Methodist church and courts Anna. We were not sure whether he did love Anna as much as it seems, or if her inheritance was a big draw! He was certainly overjoyed to hear it was £50,000 instead of the £10, 000 or £20,000 he thought.
The Methodist church is a thread through the story and is another source of confusion for Anna, who would dearly love to feel conviction of faith, but merely feels guilt that she doesn’t. The church is tied in with the key part of the plot involving a factory now owned by Anna, rented by Titus Price who is deeply in debt. Titus is a leading member of the church but we found him to be hypocritical; he is very unpleasant to a young girl at the Sunday School outing, having previously presented himself as a good Christian!
Anna feels sorry for Titus in that she has to hassle him for payment of the rent owed, at the insistence of her father, and particularly for Titus’s son Willie, a gentle young man, but ineffectual for most part. This small family provide the tragic element in Anna’s life.
The story reaches an abrupt end and this was felt to be very unsatisfactory by most of us. It was felt that Bennett was in a hurry to finish and it wasn’t thought out properly. Perhaps he had a publishers’ deadline to meet?!!
On the whole, the group felt it probably would not be the book taken off the shelf to read based on the blurb, but several of us felt glad to have read it. Bennett’s own acknowledgement that he wrote to make an income was thought to be reflected in the storyline, but his empathy with his female characters and the closely observed, eloquently written descriptions provided us with some bits to enjoy.
Next month we're reading Bernard Cornwell "Azincourt" for discussion on Wednesday 5th August and if you want to get ahead of the game September 2nd we're discussing George Orwell "Down and Out in Paris and London"
Until next time...:)