Edwin Clayhanger appears to be the hero of this book by Arnold Bennett but it soon becomes apparent as you read the story that the Clayhanger who holds the power in this relationship is Edwin’s father Darius. Darius rules the family and rules Edwin’s life. Edwin wants to be an architect and wants to marry but neither of those things can happen because Darius holds the purse strings and Edwin doesn’t have the ability to pull free. Darius is in charge until he starts to weaken and suddenly Edwin begins to have the ability to think for himself and make decisions about how his life might be in the future.
This book is set in the nineteenth century in a small, provisional town in the Midlands. It is full of the life of these small towns and the politics of the time. Darius is a printer and as the book starts Edwin is just finishing school and beginning in the family business, despite his other plans. We follow Edwin’s life to the time just after his father’s death. We see him beginning to set foot in adulthood and to start new things while finding himself. We see the aspirations he has for himself and how it actually turns out in practice and we follow his attachment to a visiting young woman which becomes very complicated.
Although Edwin’s life rings true enough it is with Darius that the author really creates a character that is totally believable. We know more about Darius’ past than Edwin does so we understand him, on occasion, when his son doesn’t. We see his search for respectability and his sense of loyalty to the business which has kept him out of poverty. We understand his frustration with Edwin’s unrealistic daydreaming and liberal politics. And then we see Darius decay in mind and body and for anyone who has known a family member with dementia this part of the book is very sad and heartbreakingly realistic.
I first read Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale because I heard a radio article about how no one ever reads Bennett any more despite the fact that he was incredibly famous and popular when he was writing. I enjoyed that book a lot and I picked up Clayhanger and its two sequels at a very low price in a charity shop some time ago. I am looking forward to reading the next two books in the series.
This book is a classic. It is a book of its time but the characterisations are timeless. The story is interesting and well told. I did get a bit bogged down in the middle where I seemed to be making little progress but I do encourage you to persist as the last quarter of the book is excellent.