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Arnold Bennett: Clayhanger

This is the first book in the trilogy and tells the story from the point of view of Edwin Clayhanger. In fact, it starts well before, starting with the childhood of his father, Darius. But the main focus is on Edwin. We follow him from school, his interest in architecture and his father’s dragging him into his own printing business. He is somewhat interested in Janet Orgreave, the neighbour and sister of his schoolfriend, Charlie, but soon loses interest in her when Charlie introduces him to a family friend, the slightly strange Hilda Lessways. Nothing happens on her first visit but, on her second visit, they become closer and, indeed, get engaged with plans for marriage. But, a few days later, he hears from the Orgreaves (who knew nothing of their relationship) that she has married someone else.

Life goes on. Darius goes gaga and Edwin gradually takes over the business. People die. Edwin, his sister, Maggie, and Janet Orgreave all remain unmarried. One day, Edwin sees Janet with a seven-year old boy whom she calls her nephew. It is, in fact Hilda’s son. Edwin becomes friends with the boy and then hurries off to Brighton to find Hilda. She is in desperate straits, running a boarding house but facing bankruptcy – and, apparently, still married. The death story was a fiction to disguise the fact that her husband is in prison. He helps her financially and returns home. However, when Hilda comes up to Bursley, he finds out that the husband is in prison for bigamy and that, therefore, Hilda is not married. The book ends with the pair about to renew their love.

Though published just two years after The Old Wives’ Tale, it seems slower than that novel. It is still a fine book but the wider span makes for heavier reading. Or perhaps Edwin Clayhanger is, well, frankly too ordinary.

Publishing history

First published 1910 by Methuen