Arnold Bennett is one of those authors who has long fallen out of fashion. Up till now, I knew him only for two things.
Firstly, his depiction of character came under attack by Virginia Woolf in her brilliant essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’. She responds to Bennett’s statement that there are no first-rate young novelists – this was 1924 – because none of them can create characters that are real, true and convincing. You can read the whole thing here, but for those of you who lack time or inclination, essentially Woolf takes issue with the way Bennett describes all the things surrounding a character rather than the actual character. She describes a woman – who she calls Mrs Brown – in a railway carriage and suggests how Mr Bennett would ‘sidle sedately towards’ her and give precise information about every little detail pertaining to her and yet somehow utterly miss her. She goes on to dissect, quite viciously, one of his novels and suggests that the character gets lost in all the detailed description of everything else:
we can only hear Mr Bennett’s voice telling us facts about rents and freeholds and copyholds and fines.
She compares his writing to a hostess talking about the weather at a party and then says that his novel-writing ‘tools are the wrong ones for us to use’. She says that writers of today, namely Joyce, Forster and Eliot, have to break with this tradition, and this is why there is all ‘the smashing and the crashing’ in Modern Literature. Joyce, she says, is:
a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows.
She concludes by saying that Bennett is to some extent right in that today’s novelists haven’t been able to capture Mrs Brown, but that they are trying and are, in any case, doing rather better than Bennett.
The other thing I know about Arnold Bennett is that I once had a very delicious ‘omelette Arnold Bennett’ at The Wolseley. (Thanks to one of my tremendously spoiling older brothers.) It is a heavenly creamy smoked haddock eggy concoction. Unbelievably rich and indulgent and you can’t quite believe you are eating it for breakfast. The dish was created for Arnold Bennett at the Savoy – where I expect you can still get it – and he loved it so much that he insisted on eating it everywhere. I do hope this nugget is squeezed into a Downton Abbey plotline. Apparently Virginia Woolf is making a cameo in this series, so getting someone to eat omelette Arnold Bennett would be a wonderfully oblique reference to the literary debate above!
I suppose the two stories cancel each other out – after Virginia Woolf’s laying into Arnold Bennett about Mrs Brown, I don’t much fancy reading his novels, but, then again, someone who could be the inspiration for such a delicious omelette does deserve a certain respect.
Well now I know a third thing. Bennett wrote a novel called The Old Wives’ Tale, which Sathnam Sanghera has reimagined as his wonderful novel Marriage Material. Reading Marriage Material has been a neat side-stepping of the Arnold Bennett dilemma. I have managed to get – more-or-less – the plot and substance of his novel, but by reading something which I suspect is rather better.
Marriage Material is written in two parallel narratives. The main story follows Arjan Banga, who returns to his family’s Wolverhampton corner shop when his father dies. He leaves behind his metropolitan, Guardian-magaziney London life as a graphic designer with white fiancé and smart flat (which features things like a painted blackboard ‘covered in slightly self-conscious messages’) to go back to Sikh provincialism – a run-down high street and local children ‘running into the shop just to shout “Paki” at my mum before running out again, a depressing urban version of Knock Down Ginger’. What initially seems awful, slowly reveals its allure to Arjan, who is caught between worlds – not quite white, not quite Sikh – and his struggle to tread the tightrope between them makes very good, thought-provoking reading. It’s not so very different from Francesca Segal’s The Innocents – another re-imagining of a classic novel, which explores the benefits and drawbacks of a segregated society. (You can read some more thoughts on Segal’s excellent novel here.)
Interspersed with Arjan’s story is our own discovery of his roots: the story of the previous generation who lived in that corner shop. Two Sikh sisters are growing up during the time of Enoch Powell and protests about Wolverhampton bus employees being allowed to wear turbans. One sister, Kamaljit, learns little English and is happy to leave school to settle down and be a good Sikh wife. In contrast, the other sister Surinder does very well at school, is always reading – be that novels or magazines borrowed from the shop – and wants to become a nurse. Needless to say, the two narratives, very satisfyingly, join up.
What’s so clever about the book is that Sanghera embraces all the clichés only to then explode them. Kamaljit doesn’t just marry any old Sikh but one who is from a lower caste, which is almost as outrageous as if she were to marry a white person. This caste issue comes up again and again – with some alarmingly sinister consequences – as Sanghera points out the racism practised between Sikhs as a counterpart to that of Powell’s of the 1960s and to that apparent in Wolverhampton in 2011. Sexism amongst Sikhs is also examined as another form of discrimination, not so different to racism. Perhaps most surprising is when a Sikh woman defends Enoch Powell:
‘His point that many immigrants didn’t want to integrate? Just take a look around.’
Marriage Material is full of subtle and nuanced arguments about racism and integration. It begs the question, just how possible is it to live happily as a mixed-race couple in 1968, or in 2011?
How would Marriage Material stand up to Woolf’s criticism? I suspect rather better than The Old Wives’ Tale, as I certainly felt I got close to Sanghera’s ‘Mrs Brown’. My only problem with the novel was that I felt Surinder was the its real achievement rather than Arjan, and so it was a little frustrating that she was given the backseat in terms of narrative. Surinder was conjured with such skill that I wanted her to walk to centre stage rather than be relegated to the wings – a great measure of success in creating a real and compelling character. I’m sure that even Virginia Woolf would approve.