This is my review of Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett.
At first, this seemed wooden and dated, a pale imitation of Trollope or Eliot, who had been writing in a similar vein two generations earlier. Initially, I found the main source of interest in the detailed descriptions of the industrial landscape of "The Five Towns", a kind of verbal Lowry, if the latter had painted the Potteries rather than Manchester.
Then, I became hooked by Bennett's portrayal of the main characters, which in time seemed to me more realistic and telling than his more celebrated Victorian forerunners. We know that Anna's relationship with the suave and capable Mynors will not follow a simple and happy path, since the author begins to hint at future tragedy, but will this be dramatic or subtly understated?
Competent, self-contained but inexperienced, Anna has been understandably dominated by her miserly tyrant of a father who has been punctilious in growing the fortune left her by her deceased mother, but cannot bring himself to give her free access to the money, only arbitrary duties such as his brutal insistence that she pursues rent arrears on one of her properties. Denied a normal, loving upbringing, it is hardly surprising that Anna find it difficult to establish a spontaneous romantic relationship with Mynors. She admires him, even imagines him in her bed, but it is only a matter of time before she comprehends that life with him means exchanging one tyrant for another, admittedly more benevolent than her father. It is easier for her to extend the maternal love she feels for her young sister to a weak, inept man who needs her support.
Bennett also proves clear-eyed over the materialism and hyprocrisy of some of the pillars of the local Methodist community, which exerts as great a domination on poor Anna as does her father. He describes with wry insight how the community deals with the suicide of a leading church member , "an abject yet heroic surrender of all those pretences by which society contrives to tolerate itself. Here was a man whom no one respected, but everyone pretended to respect – who knew he was respected by none, but pretended that he was respected by all….. If any man could have been trusted to continue the decent sham to the end and so preserve the general self-esteem, surely it was this man. But no! Suddenly abandoning all imposture, he transgresses openly….snatching a piece of hemp cries, `Behold me; this is real human nature. This is the truth; the rest was lies. I lied;you lied. I confess it, and you shall confess it.'"