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Arnold Bennett: Anna of the Five Towns

This is Bennett’s first Five Towns novel. The five towns (there are actually six) are Turnhill (real town: Tunstall), Bursley (Burslem) (where much of this novel is set), Hanbridge (Hanley), Knype (Stoke), Longshaw (Longton) and the forgotten town (Fenton). Bennett actually started writing it before A Man from the North, his first published novel, but he only published it in 1902, after rewriting it and changing the title more than once. The novel was very much influenced by the French naturalists and probably the Russians as well, with its doom-and-gloom and tragic outlook.

Anna is the daughter of Ephraim Tellwright, a hard-nosed, nominally Wesleyan miser, who has been twice widowed (Anna is the daughter of his first wife, her younger half-sister, Agnes, the daughter of his second wife.) Ephraim has made his money (and kept it) by shrewd and hard-nosed investment. They live in a modest house and have no housekeeper (Anna, aided by Agnes, does all the work). Anna has little idea of what her father does and there is little but formal communication between them. At the start of the novel, however, Anna turns twenty-one and her father, grudgingly, hands her over her inheritance from her mother (some £50,000), most of it wisely invested. Indeed, he encourages her to invest some £2,000 she is about to receive in dividends in the business of Henry Mynors, a fellow Wesleyan and upcoming businessman. Anna obeys her father in this, as in all things.

The relationship with Mynors takes on its own inexorability. She goes on holiday to the Isle of Man with the Sutton family – he is the alderman and about-to-be mayor and their daughter, Beatrice, becomes Anna’s friend. Mynors shows up and the couple are often left together, till he finally proposes and is accepted. However, there is, of course, a sub-plot. One of the properties Anna inherits is a rundown mill (contrasted very strongly with Mynors’ efficient operation), run by Ted and Willie Price, father and son. The Prices are permanently in debt, including owing £100 in back rent to Anna. Her father makes her turn the screws which she, reluctantly, does. Young Willie is the messenger between Anna and his father and an attachment grows up between the two. However, tragedy strikes as, first, Mr. Price Sr hangs himself when a business deal goes sour and then Price’s old housekeepers dies shortly after, leaving Willie no option but to emigrate to Australia, while Anna marries Mynors.

Bennett damns both the commercial hypocrisy and ruthlessness of expansionist capitalism and also damns the evangelism that is a major backdrop to this novel. All the key players are ardent Wesleyans, showing one face in church and, all too often, another in business. The tragedy of Ted Price is made the more bitter, when we see his active (and financial) participation in the religious life while, all the time, he is struggling in business, with his fellow Wesleyans, including (albeit unwittingly) Anna, pushing him to an early grave. This may well be Bennett’s foremost tragedy as his later Five Towns novels move more into comedy of manners. It makes you wonder what he would have become if he had stuck to tragedy.

Publishing history

First published 1902 by Chatto and Windus