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Arnold Bennett: Hilda Lessways

This book is a much more interesting one than the first in the series – Clayhanger. The reasons for that are clear. Edwin Clayhanger is, frankly, a not very interesting character. Not only is Hilda Lessways much more interesting and much more complex but the subsidiary characters are, as well. Hilda’s mother, for example, is certainly more interesting than Edwin’s. Edwin’s friends, the Orgreaves, clearly illustrate Tolstoy’s dictum All happy families resemble one another. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The Orgreaves are happy and therefore essentially uninteresting. The Orgreaves are, of course, Hilda’s friends as well but they appear much less in this novel. Finally, Hilda’s not quite husband, George Cannon, is definitely of more interest than the characters in Clayhanger.

The plot has been partially outlined in the previous book but one more thing that makes this book more interesting is that it both fills in gaps and explains certain behaviours, particularly by Hilda, which were not readily explicable in Clayhanger. This is particularly the case with her engagement to Edwin Clayhanger and then his discovery (from Janet Orgreave) that Hilda is married to George Cannon. As we now find out, she had married George Cannon before becoming engaged to Clayhanger but had already learned that Cannon had been previously married and that their marriage was invalid. She intended to tell Clayhanger but was suddenly called away. By the time she had dealt with her sick friend, she had discovered that she was pregnant by Cannon and could not return to Clayhanger.

Of course, we learn much more about Hilda, in particular how she met and was fascinated by George Cannon and how she also came to be fascinated by Edwin Clayhanger. We follow Cannon in his somewhat dubious business deals – his newspaper, his practice of law without the formal qualifications, his investment in the hotel trade (with Hilda’s money) and how she is slowly dragged into his life and business. And we also follow her strange relationship with Cannon’s half sister (and her mother’s estranged friend) Sarah Gailey (whose illness and subsequent death lead to abandonment of Edwin Clayhanger). Indeed, Bennett seems much more interested in the characters and less in the social milieu and that makes this book that much more interesting.

Publishing history

First published 1910 by Methuen