The Pretty Lady.
ORIGINAL AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT
Original autograph manuscript. 4to. 384 numbered pp, fine wove paper, watermarked "Walker's loose-leaf", with 2 blank leaves at front, six at rear, calligraphic title page, and author's manuscript epigraph. 245 x 190 mm, contemporary binding of half blue-green morocco over marbled boards, spine lettered in panels "The Pretty Lady A.B. Comarques 1917 - 1918" by Bagguley of Newcastle-under-Lyme.
The complete composition manuscript, revised throughout of an important novel concerning sexual morality and the home front in the First World War, revised throughout, bound for Bennett’s own library at his country house “Comarques”.
The Pretty Lady is of one of Arnold Bennett’s more interesting and substantial novels, a modern sexual morality tale, set in the climate of First War London. The central female character, Christine, is a second generation Parisian prostitute “the daughter of a daughter of joy”, who is forced to set up shop in London by the war. She plies her trade discreetly, with a subtle professionalism, accepting money “as though she held these financial sequels to be a stain on the ideal, a tedious necessary, a nuisance, or simply negligible.” She regularly visits the Brompton oratory to pray and seek guidance, but declines to take communion or to confess, for “though she had sinned, her sin was mysteriously not like other people’s sin of exactly the same kind”. She begins a relationship which at times has many elements of a “real” love-affair with a client, G.J. Hoape, a morally elusive Englishman, sophisticated, detached, emotionally costive but kind, who simultaneously profiteers from the war and devotes much energy and money to the organisation of medical care for injured soldiers.
The book divided opinion, predictably. George Moore described Christine as “the most famous cocotte in literature”, (at the same time as trying to get Bennett to admit that the scenes between G.J. and her must have been based on first hand experience) and the German writer Rudolf Kommer said that “Pretty Lady was on a plane by itself, the finest war novel” (both these comments recorded by Bennett in his journals). It was duly banned by W.H. Smith, but the negative reviews were sufficiently outraged to compensate for any consequent loss in sales: The Sunday Chronicle wrote that it was “a work calculated to destroy the moral [sic] of the people. It is a book which will degrade any decent book stall”, and the Daily Star that that “every English pen ought to be a clean, shining weapon. Our novelists ought to write for the young citizens of both sexes who are in sore need of mental and moral sustenance. The war has given them a thousand high themes. Why on earth should they go nosing about our metropolitan drains?” As if to prove the point about reviews such as the Star’s, Bennett bumped into its author the day after publication, and rather than punching him on the nose, gave him a cigar and bought him a drink.
Bennett was particularly interested in how the War was affecting class consciousness: G.J. was flabbergasted not by the fact of his valet leaving to enlist in the army, but at the mortification the valet’s wife felt at the inconvenience this would cause to Bennett. (In a characteristically nihilistic outcome, the valet, far from sticking bayonets in Germans, ended up being batman to a “a dandiacal Divisional General at Colchester”). Throughout the book Bennett takes care to present the situation neutrally (the French critic George Lafourcade wrote of the novel’s vein of “half-repressed sympathy and disguised compassion” and Brian Downs of “the abeyance of ethical judgment”). That this was a conscious decision by Bennett may be seen in the manuscript of “one of the strangest, and in some respects most disturbing, passages in Bennett’s writing" (Robey A Writer at War, Arnold Bennett 1914 – 1918 ) when G.J. is visiting his shoemakers in St. James’s. At the end of the consultation the oleaginous shoe-maker summons the “polisher”, “a horrible, pallid, weak, cringing man” up from a trapdoor to outdo the proprietor in subjugation. The passage ends “because the trap door had not shut properly the manager stamped on it and stamped down the pale man definitely into the darkness underneath”. The evidence of the manuscript suggests that Robey rather misreads this episode, when writing that it showed a lack of sensitivity on G.J.’s part: surely he was deceived by Bennett’s dryness of tone, especially when we learn from the manuscript, in one of the few passages that Bennett didn’t include in the final text, that “The oddness of the structures of society was again worrying him”.
It may be dangerous territory to automatically associate character and author, but it’s irresistible in this case, for there are several parallels, not least in their relationship with the upper classes. Bennett has some fun in the novel with the portrayal of the aristocratic Queenie Paull, who Bennett vigorously denied was modelled on Diana Manners (later Diana Cooper), her absurd fund-raising efforts, and her jazz-age Omega workshop décor. G.J., in a rather likeable way, acknowledges how conservative are his own tastes. Despite having decorated his Albany set with great and original taste (it was modelled on that of the writer and collector Edward Knoblock), on seeing Queenie’s apartments which “resembled a gigantic and glittering kaleidoscope deranged and arrested . . . He was aware of a terrible apprehension that he would never be the same man again, and that henceforth his own abode would be eternally stricken for him with the curse of insipidity.”
In a thoughtful essay Brian Downs writes that: “After The Old Wives’ Tale, The Pretty Lady certainly demands fuller consideration than any other of the author’s works. It has many features in common with the serious novels already touched on: for example, the sobering and spiritual hardening of a wealthy man-about-town under the stress of War, a sufficiently unromantic central theme, garnished once more by a number of luridly-lit and primarily episodic scenes; the Zeppelin raid on London, for instance, and the funeral of Lord Roberts, a piece of prose with a sonorous, solemn magnificence that recalls Bossuet. The ironical sense of the characters’ infinite insignificance is ubiquitous, as specially befits a War book. Such general characteristics we noted in The Old Wives Tale, but there are others. Most important of all, as in a measure embracing the others, is “the abeyance of ethical judgment”.”
Margaret Drabble, writing in the TLS in 2009, the year of publication of her biography of Bennett, describes it as a “Feverish engagement with the violence and sexuality of modernity . . . charged with messages of primitivism, disintegration and sudden death.” She was reviewing the new edition with its introduction by John Shapcott, who "makes a strong case for The Pretty Lady as a modernist text, forging a new aesthetic from the violence of a war which by 1917 had reached the streets of London. Bennett portrays a frenzied social scene of syncopated music, Negro singers and night-clubs, which contrasts with Christine’s safe old-fashioned nest in Cork Street. As Shapcott ponts out, severed body parts of both civilian and front-line victims litter the novel. Queenie capers around her boudoir as Salome, with a plate of bread and butter representing John the Baptist’s head."
The manuscript is regularly dated by Bennett, with a word count. Every page bears revision, sometimes quite extensive, and nearly always adding to the text, seldom reducing. His famously professional writing practices were in fact under great strain at the time, and he found the work difficult. He was obliged to take a month off in the middle of it for recuperation, and the composition didn’t always flow. A more detailed study of the manuscript will allow a fresh view to be taken on Robey’s view that “The slow and fragmented process of composition proved to be fatal to the book’s unity. It was put together in bits and pieces with one section having a functional relationship with the other sections only to the extent that the relationships of Christine, Hoape, and Conception [sic] are continued throughout the novel. For the rest, Bennett seems to have filled out the chapters with whatever material he had at hand when he sat down to write. He obviously meant what he said when he spoke of collecting ideas for the book. The Pretty Lady is a record of those collecting expeditions with each set of specimens staring out separately from the pages.”
Drabble, Dame Margaret. “A lost art." The Times Literary Supplement, no. 5551 and 5552, 21 Aug. 2009, p. 18+.
Downs, Brian W. “Arnold Bennett” The North American Review Vol. 219, No. 818 (Jan., 1924), pp. 71-81.
Lafourcade, Georges. Arnold Bennett: A Study. London, Frederick Muller. 1939
Robey, Kinley E. A Writer at War, Arnold Bennett 1914 – 1918. Louisana State University Press, 1972.
Stock Code: 240980