Penguin. First published 1902
Anna of the Five Towns is the first of Arnold Bennet’s five novel series set in the Staffordshire potteries. It has the authentic ring of someone who really knows the town and its people, and this is true for Bennet who was writing about his own beginnings and the people he grew up with. What a wonderful gift for a writer, to grow up amid such writing fodder.
The titular heroine, Anna Tellwright, is the cowed daughter of Ephraim Tellwright, a miser and small-time tyrant. There is a beauty and inner goodness to Anna which puts her at odds with the hypocrisy and shallowness of the God-fearing folk of ‘the five towns’—a string of pottery-producing towns along a winding river.
While Anna keeps house for her resolutely dissatisfied father and her amiable younger sister, Agnes, the eminently suitable but irritatingly perfect Mr Mynors is doing a courtship dance at her front gate. Her heart awakens to the possibility that she might be loved and might be persuaded to love in return.
On Anna’s twenty-first birthday her father informs her that she is a rich woman in her own right. The initial shock is followed by her realisation that she is completely ignorant about the workings of money. This ignorance, coupled with her habitual servitude, leave her still at the mercy of the miser’s manipulative ways. She finds herself in the odd position of being a grown woman whose father dictates how she may manage her own properties and forces her to sign her name to his greedy decisions.
Tenants in one of Anna’s properties, father and son, Titus and Willie Price, pay the price (no pun intended) for her father’s cold heartedness. Tragedy follows, (how could it not in a novel set in a northern English town?) and Anna must shoulder the guilt even though she did not strike the blow which caused it.
The novel, a northern tragedy, follows Anna Tellwright from her child-like innocence through the trials of trying to live up to her role of being a woman-of-importance in the town, to the final act—the end of innocence, when Anna must begin the rest of her life knowing that it will be a pale shadow of the one she hoped for.
Anna of the Five Towns in a heart-wrenching evocation of a time, a place and a people. Thankfully it does not descend into melodrama but remains throughout a carefully wrought tale of a lonely soul trying to blossom on stony ground. Well worth the read.