Arnold Bennett: of the people, for the people but not necessarily known by the people.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Sheffield and the Well Equipped Worker.
But first:

My novel A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts is now available as an ebook.

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I once tried to explain Mass Observation to a Spaniard.

-Ah, came the reply. Spies.

It’s not as if Spain knows nothing of collecting social data. The Instituto Nacional de Estadística collects data on just about everything (for example, it was a matter of minutes to find out that last year seventy seven books on the natural sciences were published in Gallego) but therein lies the problem. It all adds up to a big bunch of numbers that are carefully recorded, stored and forgotten. There is little or no analysis. The British, on the other hand, can’t get enough of what their neighbours think, say, eat, read and what they do at the weekends. For a private and reserved people we are incredibly curious about the people that live across the road, preferably over two or three generations.

Before Mass Observation there was Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1899) and in 1851 the three volumes of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor were published. They formed part of the social reforming movement that grew up as a result of the worst excesses of industrialisation in the cities and towns of Britain. Thus they focused on the living conditions of the poorest in society and less on their dreams and aspirations. An exception to this was a book published in 1919, The Equipment of the Workers, issued under the aegis of the St Philips Settlement Education and Economics Research Society.

The authors asked a simple question: “What are the Workers going to do now the War is over?” One thing they were not going do was return to six day working weeks and poor living conditions. The men returning from the trenches would be

…less docile in behavior; more ambitious in outlook

Fine words but as we all know to our cost, they rarely butter parsnips. Apart from forming nearly eighty percent of the British population who were these workers? What did they want? What did they think? Were they Bolsheviks ready to plant the Red Flag over Buck House? Over eight hundred of them, men and women, were interviewed in Sheffield and after studying the results this is what the authors concluded:

A quarter of the interviewees (the Well-Equipped) showed that they were ready for the new world of the 1920s, a world of Education built upon a spirit of renewal. As for the rest, the authors did not

…regard the bulk of the Inadequately Equipped workers as capable of responsible and thoughtful participation in political affairs

Politics was, for all the calls for nationalisation and central control of the press, merely the means by which this New World of Spirit would be established and maintained. So large a group of workers left to fester in their ignorance would lead very quickly to large numbers of them shimmying up flag poles with red flags clamped in their teeth.

What to do? For a start they could bloody well know who Arnold Bennett was. As part of the section of the questionnaire called Data Required To Indicate X’s Love of Beauty, and apart from describing the floor, the interviewer had to ask how many writers, musicians and artists from a list the interviewee could recognise. Second from the top, under Beethoven but above G.K.Chesterton, was Arnold Bennett. Hoppitt, a sign writer, one of the well equipped could not; nor could Youngson, a fitter; Quain, married with six children, knew who he was but had not read him, nor had he read much of anything. Finlayson, a sixty year old gas fitter had a hazy knowledge of Chesterton, Wells and Shaw but of Bennett, he knew nothing. Miss Palfrey, 18 years old, living at home, munitions worker, weekly visitor to the cinema, knew that Ruskin was a lover of beautiful things and that Bennett was a writer. Mrs Quarles, 28, Liberal supporter, not a lover of poetry, knew nothing of Chesteron, Wells, Morris, Shaw or Bennett.

Dalson, however, was the shining star. An engine tenter (he tended a fixed engine in a works, factory or mine), he was twenty seven, married and had one child. Apart from a clean floor, his love of beauty could also be seen in the score of Bennett novels he had read. As a guide to building his own library he used Bennett’s Literary Taste, borrowing the books from the public library and the Workers’ Education Association and making synopses of them. One of eight children born to uneducated but loving parents, he had left school at thirteen to bring money into the home. He had read Plato and wanted to ‘get onto’ Wordsworth and Shelley. As the twenties progressed, and the Age of Education and Spirit was not implanted into England, what became of him? Did he discover Lawrence, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf and Lewis? Was he disappointed with Bennett’s later work? Did he buy Penguin paperbacks as he moved into middle age? Did he die of influenza? Bennett would have been interested in him. As for the modernists and the Jazz Age Bright Young Things, is it too flippant to write that they would have asked him to use the tradesmen’s entrance? More than likely it is, so I shall.

No graph today. It will return in the next post on Stella Benson’s The Little World.

Leave a comment


  1. Beautifully written, as always. A fascinating study. I’m convinced Dalson would have undoubtedly been an interesting chap to talk to!

    • Thank you! I would have loved to find out more about him but all the interviewees were given false names. How many more were there like him, uneducated because of class, but clever and with a thirst for knowledge?

  2. Regards for sharing your fantastic web site.


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