Arnold Bennett wrote for money; he also wrote about money. It might seem incongruous that someone who earned and spent great sums of cash would suggest that the accumulation of wealth for its own sake is a symptom of human depravity, yet this is clearly the case. In Anna of the Five Towns and Riceyman Steps the soulless appetite for wealth leads to isolation, depression, poverty, hunger and death. For Ephraim Tellwright and Henry Earlforward, the compulsion to hoard money perverts their sensibilities and hampers their ability to connect with their fellow human beings. Furthermore, Tellwright’s daughter Anna suffers from her misbegotten notions about propriety and class and she is in some respects imprisoned by her wealth. Even Henry Mynors, the sole representative of the clergy in either of these two novels, is far more interested in the accumulation of riches than in the salvation of souls. Titus and Willie Price, moreover, are utterly destroyed by Tellwright’s lust for their property.

Are we to believe, then, that a man who lived as lavishly as Arnold Bennett hypocritically promoted the notion that the love of money was indeed a root cause of human misery and injustice? The answer is yes and no. For although Bennett believed that there was nothing innately wrong with acquiring money, he felt that it was indecent to stockpile it. For Bennett, money was for spending, and its true value lay in the worldly pleasures it might purchase.

The servant Elsie, by far the most sympathetic character in either Anna of the Five Towns or Riceyman Steps, represents a stark contrast to Tellwright and Earlforward in her attitudes about money. However, Bennett is not implying that working people are inherently superior to the wealthy because the rich are automatically corrupted by their money. This would contradict not only Bennett’s chosen lifestyle, but also his artistic instincts. He was no Marxist; there are immoral paupers and decent prosperous folks in both of these novels. But the reader can easily discern a relationship between goodness and one’s attitudes regarding money. Elsie exists on a higher moral plane than Tellwright and Earlforward because she is unafraid to spend what little money she has, which makes her capable of enjoying life in ways that they never will.

Arnold Bennett made no secret of the delight he took in the many blessings that money can provide. As a financially successful writer, he took full advantage of the benefits afforded to the wealthy in his day: He owned a yacht, traveled frequently, and took meals in the finest restaurants. For Bennett, the sin was not in the accumulation of wealth, but in the depraved desire to amass it for its own sake. Tellwright’s inability to express love for his daughters is a function of his miserliness. This is quite a contrast to the Suttons, who are magnanimous towards their children in the allocation of both love and money.

It is in the character of Elsie that Bennett best expresses his beliefs regarding the relationship between wealth and morality. She is loyal, humble, industrious, and almost preternaturally nurturing, and her lack of concern for money is displayed when she risks her livelihood by nursing Joe back to health inside Earlforward’s house. In contrast to Elsie, Anna Tellwright is unwilling to confirm the love she feels for Willie Price when she chooses to marry Mynors. Anna, who is just as tireless and faithful to her obligations as Elsie, is nevertheless handicapped socially and emotionally. It is clearly Anna’s relationship to her wealth which prevents her from acting upon her emotions the way Elsie does.

It was an appetite for riches rather than the love of words which originally motivated Arnold Bennett to write fiction, and during his lifetime, those who viewed Bennett as more mercenary than artist were particularly scornful of his work. One critic summed up his career as “a flagrant case of literary capitalism” (Lucas 9). Bennett, who in his own words, “wanted money in heaps,” began writing, and continued to write, “for an uncomplicated commercial motive” (Simons 16; Barker 41). This is not surprising; much of his childhood was spent in poverty. Yet it is absurd to suggest that this distinction makes his work less important than that of so many of his contemporaries who had the luxury of inherited wealth.

The important issue is not whether Bennett’s enjoyment of lucre somehow invalidates him as an artist, but how his feelings about money contributed to his artistic outlook. Materialism and the accumulation of money constitute one of the most prominent themes in his writing, and perhaps critics can justifiably accuse him of hypocrisy for not allowing certain of his wealthier characters to enjoy the blessings of riches as he did. But this does not negate his social commentary. “Arnold Bennett’s attitude to money and to mere material things is a criticism of life and of the modern materialistic age” (Simons 86).

Bennett’s revulsion for those who would simply hoard their money is elucidated in the form of two emotionally constipated men, Efraim Tellwright and Henry Earlforward. It is impossible to isolate the emotional detachment of these two rich misers from their need to accumulate wealth. Tellwright, who “belonged to the great and powerful class of house-tyrants,” is an overbearing presence who dominates the lives of his two daughters (Anna 112). Perhaps the most affluent man in town, he is nonetheless committed to a life of severe frugality: He does his own household masonry, denies Anna money for decent clothes, and serves his guests, his children and himself meager portions of food. “Mr. Tellwright carved the beef, giving each of them a small piece, and taking only cheese for himself” (Anna 67). Tellwright’s rigid asceticism is a manifestation of his misanthropy. This hard, unforgiving soul erupts when Anna forgets to buy him bacon, the only occasion when her conduct has been less than perfect.

The male creature’s terrible displeasure permeated the whole room like an ether, invisible but carrying vibrations to the heart. Then, when he had eaten one piece of bacon, and cut his envelopes, the miser began to empty himself of some of his anger in stormy tones that might have uprooted trees (Anna 67).

Tellwright’s outburst over this incident, entirely out of proportion to Anna’s oversight, demonstrates his lack of humanity. By referring to Anna as “the miser’s daughter” Bennett is emphasizing the connection between Tellwright’s hostility and his money-grubbing. Unfortunately for Tellwright, he is incapable of deep introspection:

If you had told him that he inflicted purposeless misery not only on others but on himself, he would have grinned again, vaguely aware that he had not tried to be happy, and rather despising happiness as a sort of childish gewgaw. (Anna 113)

The perversity of Tellwright’s lust for money is most evident in his treatment of Titus and Willie Price. He confides in Anna that the demise of their business is inevitable, yet he chooses to milk them for all they are worth in the meanwhile. Anna, who now owns the Price’s property, acquiesces to her father’s greed, but the episode exacts a grave emotional toll on her psyche:

Here were she and her father, rich, powerful, autocratic; and there were Willie Price and his father, commercial hares hunted by hounds of creditors, hares that turned in plaintive appeal to those greedy jaws for mercy (Anna 75).

The few pounds wrestled from the Prices before their imminent downfall is a pittance compared with Anna’s net worth. The mindless accumulation of wealth is Tellwright’s only source of gratification, and it is also, not coincidentally, the part of himself which he chooses to share with daughter.

by Richard W. Bray

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