Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Arnold Bennett's Moving Pictures: Early Filmic Vision in Anna of the Five Towns

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Arnold Bennett's Moving Pictures: Early Filmic Vision in Anna of the Five Towns

Article excerpt

In her famously scathing 1924 essay, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," Virginia Woolf takes aim at "Edwardian" author Arnold Bennett and his cohort, criticizing the "incompleteness" of--and questioning the very medium of--their novels:

...I think that after the creative activity of the Victorian age it was
quite necessary, not only for literature but for life, that someone
should write the books that Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy
have written. Yet what odd books they are! Sometimes I wonder if we are
right to call them books at all. For they leave one with so strange a
feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction. In order to complete
them, it is necessary to do something--to join a society, or, more
desperately, to write a cheque. (Woolf 2, 9)

Woolf's issues with Bennett as a novelist are many, and her essay is commonly understood as a response to and attack upon Bennett's heavy-handed, overly-detailed, albeit flat use of characterization. Yet Woolf does more than just pan early modernist writers like Bennett for not living up to her high modernist aesthetic. As she questions the very medium of Bennett's work, I find that she inadvertently points to the need for its further examination instead of its immediate dismissal. This kind of criticism leveled by Woolf and her contemporaries--criticism which itself uses visually coded language--shapes the way Bennett is often approached and obscures Bennett's innovative use of early filmic aesthetics in his descriptions of photographs within his novel Arma of the Five Towns. While I agree with Woolf that Bennett seems to be interested in "something outside" of the book, I do not consider this to make Bennett someone who "[was] never interested...in the book itself (Woolf 10)--in fact, quite the opposite. (1) Nonetheless, I argue that Anna of the Five Towns is a book that, in its use of non-narrative description and its resemblance to the cinema of attractions, does make the reader feel like she needs to "do something"--even if not society-joining or cheque-writing, exactly--and read differently "in order to complete [it]." Bennett's remediated engagement with the surface/depth model is not psychological but aesthetic, filmic.

Published in 1902, Anna of the Five Towns is situated on the temporal and aesthetic cusp between Victorian and modernist fiction. Indeed, Bennett began composing Anna in the late Victorian period: it took him from 1896-1901 to complete the novel. (2) Due largely to the level of socially-oriented detail with which Bennett renders England's industrial Staffordshire Potteries and its inhabitants, much criticism over the last century has focused on Anna's relation to French naturalism. (3) Recent scholarship is beginning to explore Bennett's later screenwriting career, (4) but Anna's unusual use of visual culture and other forms of burgeoning visual media and technology has received little attention. Here I wish to focus on Bennett's early career and the value of his literary engagement with the aesthetics of the early cinema of attractions. The cinema of attractions, a phase coined by Tom Gunning to describe contemporaneous audiences' experiences of early film, provides a useful inroad to Bennett's aesthetics in Anna through its focus on motion and fragmentation.

Although Arnold Bennett makes no explicit indication in his journals between 1896 and 1901 that he saw a film exhibition, his journals nonetheless teem with evidence of his keen engagement with popular culture, art, literature, and, perhaps most importantly, theater. Bennett's residence in London through 1900 permitted relatively easy access to performance art and culture, as did his trip to Paris in October 1897. During this span of time, he was reading and writing about Gabriele D'Annunzio, watching Loi'e Fuller perform, and attending Wagnerian operas, such as The Flying Dutchman and Der Ring des Nibelungen, the latter of which is typically considered the quintessential Gesamtkunstwerk. …

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