The Clayhanger Family
Cover of 1954 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Clayhanger
|Series||the Clayhanger Family|
|Subject||Coming of age|
|Publisher||Egmont Books (1st edition)|
|1910, 1911, 1916, & 1918|
The Clayhanger Family is a series of novels by Arnold Bennett, published between 1910 and 1918. Though the series is commonly referred to as a "trilogy", it actually consists of four books; the first three novels were released in one single volume as The Clayhanger Family in 1925.
The novels are a coming-of-age story set in the Midlands of Victorian England, following Edwin Clayhanger as he leaves school, takes over the family business, and falls in love. Begun in 1910, written partly at the Royal Albion Hotel, Brighton and in Lausanne.
The books are set in Bennett's usual setting of "the 5 Towns", a thinly-disguised version of the six towns of "the Potteries" which amalgamated (at the time of which Bennett was writing) into the borough (and later city) of Stoke-on-Trent. Buildings described in the novels are still identifiable in Burslem (which is the fictional "Bursley").
Clayhanger's father supported his extremely poor family even during his early childhood, and rose to become one of the key men in the "Five Towns". Clayhanger is not fully aware of his father's history, and therefore rather takes for granted much of his family's affluence and influence. Clayhanger allows his ambition to become an architect to be overruled by his domineering father, Darius, and becomes instead an unwilling (and underpaid) office junior in his father's printing business. He does mildly revolt against his father and his family. While he is capable of seeing through the many hypocrisies of Victorian England, he does not confront them or become his own man until his father's final illness and death hand him control of his business.
The triumph of the book, then, is not in outlining Edwin's escape from the respectable bourgeoisie, but in detailing its effect on his life, and his submission to it. In one of the earlier chapters in the book, Bennett writes that Edwin had only heard of a philosopher as 'someone who made the best of a bad job' and in some ways that is what Edwin has to do in the book - survive under a stifling layer of conduct imposed by his father, his church and the society he is part of. Although his friendship with the Orgreave family provide intellectual stimulation, they are as much part of 5 Towns life as anyone; this is why Edwin ends up rejecting the unspoken offer of Janet Orgreave as partner, and falls instead for the less attractive, impoverished but exotic Hilda Lessways.
Hilda Lessways (1911)
The second book was Hilda Lessways, which paralleled Edwin Clayhanger's story from the point of view of his eventual wife, Hilda. It tells the story from her coming of age, her working experiences as a shorthand clerk and keeper of a lodging house in London and Brighton, her relationship with George Cannon that ends in her disastrous bigamous marriage and pregnancy, and finally her reconciliation with Edwin Clayhanger.
In part a re-telling of the plot of Clayhanger, the book includes some scenes from the earlier book from Hilda's perspective.
These Twain (1916)
These Twain, the third in the Clayhanger series, chronicles the married life of Edwin and Hilda. Edwin, now released from the controlling influence of his father, finds himself free to run his business and his life, a freedom that is diminished by his wife's caprices.
Edwin does not enjoy an entirely happy marriage with Hilda. She does not conform to the period's stereotype of a submissive wife - which is, of course, partly why Edwin married her. It is also suggested - although according to the conventions of the time it is not stated - that the marriage is based on sexual compatibility, and as a result its problems are outside the bedroom. Hilda, who is rescued from virtual destitution by Edwin through their marriage, and who already has a child, is not a figure of passive gratitude, and has opinions on matters - such as Edwin's business - which would normally be a wholly male preserve. Edwin has his doubts about their union, and is brought to (mostly impotent) anger by his wife just as he had been by his father.
The book shows how Hilda and Edwin attempt to compromise, its title being a play on words: does it mean "these two" or "these separate"? It is suggested that they had both become perhaps too set in their ways before their marriage, even though each was in some way 'saved' by their union.
The Roll-Call (1918)
The fourth book, The Roll-Call, concerns the young life of Clayhanger's stepson, George.
George Edwin Cannon - he soon drops the surname Clayhanger, given to him upon his mother's marriage - is an architect, and represents what his stepfather Edwin Clayhanger wished to become. The characters of Edwin and Hilda are not developed further in this book: Edwin - now elevated to Alderman - appears only briefly.
The central character displays an unattractive arrogance because of the wealth behind him. In an early chapter, he thinks about adding electric light to his London dwelling, and decides that he - or rather, his stepfather - can well afford it. Bennett seems to have felt that the children of the successful bourgeoisie, unless their excesses are suppressed as Edwin's were, will become spoilt; this same theme recurs in The Old Wives' Tale.
While Bennett makes no direct references to the social and political emancipation of women that was taking place during the period of the novel, the character of Hilda combines the determination of a young woman for self-expression, with the disempowerment imposed on her by social norms.
The novels were dramatised as a 26-part serial by ATV and broadcast on the British network ITV in 1976. The cast included Janet Suzman as Hilda and Peter McEnery as Edwin Clayhanger. It was released on DVD in the UK during July 2010.
A letter in The Times Literary Supplement in 1982 noted that Clayhanger contains the names of three American presidents (Ford, Carter, and Nixon) who held office long after the novel was published.
- John Wraight, The Swiss and the British, Michael Russell Publishing Salisbury 1987, 0859551431
- "Fiction and Actuality," Times Literary Supplement September 24, 1982.
|This article needs additional citations for verification. (April 2007)|
- Text of Clayhanger  available from the website of Literary Heritage of the West Midlands.
- Clayhanger at Project Gutenberg
- Hilda Lessways at Project Gutenberg
- These Twain at Project Gutenberg
- The Roll-Call at Project Gutenberg
- The Clayhanger Family public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- Information on the Clayhanger TV series (ATV 1976)
- Images from the Clayhanger TV series (ATV 1976)