The Card – Arnold Bennett
There is something in the British psyche that makes us identify with loveable rogues. Whereas these days there is a tendency to paint the rogue as lovable but ultimately doomed to failure – I’m thinking of the likes of Arthur Daley and Derek Trotter – Bennett’s Card, Denry Machin, is both a lovable rogue and ultimately triumphant.
This was the first novel I had read of Arnold Bennett – possibly a dreadful admission – but I found it both well-written and mildly amusing – the humour was not overly dated. It goes by an alternative name in the States – Denry the Audacious – presumably because a card is not a well-known or recognised term over there – but the alternative title loses all of the nuances of the original.
Written as a series of episodes the book charts the progress of Edward Henry Machin – his mother nicknamed him Denry to save time in addressing him – from a small boy who seized the opportunity to change his examination mark to improve his educational prospects to the height of social importance by becoming the mayor (and the youngest, to boot) of his home town of Bursley, one of Bennett’s Five Towns in the Potteries around which most of his books are set. Interestingly, Machin uses football and the purchase of the country’s leading centre forward to ensure his electoral victory. Despite being published in 1911 the path to popularity hasn’t changed much.
I won’t spoil the story but Denry gets into some astonishing scrapes and is the beneficiary of enormous strokes of luck as he careers at breath-taking pace up the greasy pole. But as the book finishes Bennett stresses that what Machin brought was what we now term the feel-good factor. “What a card!” said one, laughing joyously. “He’s a rare ‘un, no mistake”…. “And yet,” demanded Councillor Barlow, “what’s he done? Has he ever done a day’s work in his life? What great cause is he identified with?” “He’s identified,” said the speaker, “with the great cause of cheering us all up.” And there’s nowt wrong with that.
Indeed, this book is a refreshing antidote to the grim realism of early 20th century novels a la D H Lawrence or the experimentation of the format of the novel a la Virginia Woolf. This is good old-fashioned harmless entertainment , the modern-day equivalent of a decent sit-com on the TV, and you can imagine it was lapped up voraciously. Whilst it earned Bennett the opprobrium of the Bloomsbury set it does show him having little or no class bias (an attribute you would be hard-pressed to find in Woolf and her cronies) and imbued with a warm and generous spirit.
For the modern reader Bennett is quite funny when he comments from his time perspective on recent innovations – electric lighting, a house with all mod cons, the perils of modern transportation – and the reaction of ordinary working folk to progress – normally a feeling of perplexity and mistrust. One of my favourite sentences is Bennett’s observations on the early days of motoring. “This was in the days… when automobilists made their wills and took food supplies before setting forth”.
If you want a gentle introduction to Bennett or just want a light, witty read you can do no better than to mark his card.