I don’t often feature ebay sales on my blog, but this particular one, for a signed, first edition of Arnold Bennett’s Lord Raingo, caught my eye this morning. In part, that’s probably because I’m a huge admirer of Arnold Bennett’s writing and because, quietly, I collect his books. If I had the pennies, this one would be winging it’s way to my shelves very quickly. But I don’t, so the best I can do is share it with a wider audience in the hopes that it may help this wonderful copy find a kind, loving and appreciative home.
Arnold Enoch Bennett (1867-1931) was an English author, critic, playwright and essayist. Born in Hanley in Staffordshire, the Potteries and their industrialisation provided the backdrop to many of the novels for which Bennett is perhaps most famous – Anna of the Five Towns (1902), Old Wives’ Tales (1908) and, my personal favourites, The Clayhanger trilogy of novels: Clayhanger (1910), Hilda Lessways (1911) and These Twain (1916). Critics might tell you that Bennett’s works provide an important link between the English novel and contemporary European realism. And they do, but as a reader, it’s Bennett’s detailed, precise writing, his very human (but not always humane) treatment of this characters, the sympathy he draws out and the ways in which he reflects their contemporary concerns that draw me again and again to his novels. He creates real worlds and real people, often in minuscule detail. Bennett’s novels are riots of misunderstanding and misreadings: it is a common theme that characters often fail to see the signals that indicate that superficially understandable beings are in fact more complicated and ambiguous than they seem.
His later works, some set in London where he lived for many years, are sometimes overlooked in favour of “the potteries” novels. This, I think, is sad. Riceyman Steps (1923) and Lord Raingo (1926) in particular have all the style and precision of the Clayhanger Trilogy, but are altogether darker and grittier. In Riceyman Steps, Bennett revisits a character, The Miser, from his earlier fiction, reworking him so thoroughly as to completely undermine the tenets of the original work: it is Bennett’s masterpiece of depicting unconscious desires as apparently rational behaviour, and implicates readers more fully in misreadings than any of his other works. Bennett, a keen sailor, discovered a chaotic second hand bookshop while on a sailing trip in Southampton where he bought a book on misers, reputedly for sixpence. This book provided the inspiration for Henry Earlforward – the miserly second hand bookseller who is the central character of Riceyman Steps – and his bookshop on the steps which lead from Kings Cross Road to Granville Square in London’s Clerkenwell. Lord Raingo tells the fictionalised story of Bennett’s friend, Lord Beaverbrook, during the first world war. Sam Raingo – “”Fifty−five. Tallishbut stoutish. Dressed like the country gentleman which he was not and never would be”, as Bennett tells us- apparently has it all: wealth, a wife, a mistress and the good life. But his health is failing and he is bored. He desires to achieve and he is handed the opportunity to fulfill that ambition, as well as gaining a peerage, when the Government asks him to head up a propaganda department with the aim of keeping up civilian morale during the war. Bennett takes the reader deeply into Raingo’s mind in describing the inevitable anxieties and attempted reconciliation of public and private emotions and stances. At the same time, a gripping story unfolds as would be expected from a semi-biographical work of his brilliant and controversial subject.
Lord Raingo was first published in the UK by Cassell & Co in 1926 and by Doran in the same year in 1926. Copies are not hard to find, it is of course now available as a print on demand, and even first editions can be picked up for a few pounds very easily in second hand bookshops and on on-line bookselling sites such as ABEBooks. But this one is special because it’s signed by Bennett himself. Incidentally, the Ebay auction listing describes the book on offer as a first edition: I think it would be more properly described as a 1st US edition, the true first being the Cassell edition of 1926. I should add that I know nothing, good or bad, of the bookseller offering this book, Cox and Budge Books. I am however quite impressed with their elegant and easy to use website, here, which I shall make a point of revisting.