I am a fan of Arnold Bennett, particularly his masterpiece The Old Wives’ Tale, which centers on the lives of two sisters of different temperament, Constance, who inherits the family drapery shop in Bursely, one of Bennett’s “Five Towns,” and adventurous Sophia, who moves to Paris and runs a boarding house and then a hotel. If you’re looking for beautifully-written entertainment, The Old Wives’s Tale is for you.
I have also enjoyed Bennett’s lesser-known novels. Hoping to see another side of Bursley, I recently read The Price of Love, which focuses on the effect of money on a family. The ne’er-do-well Louis, who has a history of theft and embezzlement, inherits half of his elderly aunt’s estate and marries her hopelessly smitten maid, Rachel, who doesn’t want to know what charming Louis is capable of. If Bennett had gone a little farther, this would have been Zola-esque.
It begins well enough: Mrs. Waldon, an elderly widow, is giving last-minute instructions to Rachel, the lively, meticulous new maid, as she bustles around lighting the lamps and adjusting the blinds. Mrs. Waldon has been surprised by Rachel’s intelligence and diligence, and the two women are already attached, after only a month together. Rachel already imitates Mrs. Waldon’s manners, and has even begun to read the newspaper.
Their lives change when Mr. Batchgrew, a trustee of Mrs. Waldon’s estate, shows up with £ 1,000 for Mrs. Waldon: he has just settled a mortgage on some of her property. He insists the money will be all right in the house overnight, though Mrs. Waldon and Rachel are wary, because there have been burglaries in the neighborhood. Still, they give in to Mr. Batchgrew, as women so often do. Rachel, however, has a very bad impression of him. And Bennett is humorous about the young’s antipathy to the old.
To Rachel he was an object odious, almost obscene. In truth, she had little mercy on old men in general, who as a class struck her as fussy, ridiculous, and repulsive. And beyond all the old men she had ever seen, she disliked Councillor Batchgrew. And about Councillor Batchgrew what she most detested was, perhaps strangely, his loose, wrinkled black kid gloves. They were ordinary, harmless black kid gloves, but she counted them against him as a supreme offense.
And then Mrs. Waldon’s two nephews, the lively, but dishonest Louis, who attended art school and so far has shone in Bursley, and Julian, a sullen, nervous businessman with terrible manners, come to dinner. With the money in the house, there is bound to be trouble–but what happens is unexpected.
At the center of the novel is the relationship between reckless Louis and sensible Rachel. Rachel worries because Louis seems determined to spend all the money he has inherited. She is the sensible one and tries to put on the brakes. As for moody Julian, he takes off for South Africa. We learn later what money has done to him.
Money can truly spoil relationships, whether you have too much or too little: that’s what we see in this novel. Bennett can write superbly, and the plot is good, yet the character development is sketchy. It is hard to get attached to these characters. Louis is weak, Rachel is charming but can be rigid, and Julian is just a cipher. And Mrs. Maldon is killed off too early in the novel.
The Price of Love may not be vintage Bennett, but it is still Arnold Bennett. It is well-written, if uneven. You can read it free on your e-reader! Though it did not prove to be as much fun as I hoped, it is a must-read for Arnold Bennett freaks. I must join the Arnold Bennett Society!