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The Card by Arnold Bennett

Public Domain Books (originally Methuen, February 1911)

I have a penchant for that particular genre of turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century novel which comprises incisive social commentary on a domestic scale and is still every bit as relevant today (see, for example, Alice Dudeney’s gem Hagar of Homerton which I wrote about previously). Most of these are now out of print, but the majority of Arnold Bennett’s prolific novels which land in this category endure.

Bennett is remembered chiefly as provincial, largely down to his own desire to eschew the literary and write for the “ordinary” person; so it’s easy to forget that he transcended his roots as the son of a Staffordshire manufacturing family and rose into intellectual and political society in both London and Paris, becoming head of the Ministry of Information towards the end of World War I (though, in typical fashion, he subsequently declined a knighthood). He never lost sight of his “ordinary” reader, however, and it’s precisely this that ensures that his writing still resonates.

In The Card, published in 1911 but set a decade or so earlier, we meet young Denry (Edward Henry) Machin, who lives with his washerwoman single mother in a rudimentary cottage in the fictional Staffordshire pottery town of Bursley. The mother loves her work and her cottage and has no truck with those who have “ideas above their station” – qualities which have not been inherited by her son.

After spotting an opportunity to “amend” his exam results, Denry wins a scholarship to a decent secondary school and from there, gets a job as a solicitor’s clerk. He takes advantage of that office to secure (or fake) himself an invitation to the town ball by adding himself to the guest list, and thence begins a journey of what the British like to term “social climbing” - but also of entrepreneurship.

After losing his clerk’s role, Denry grabs an opportunity to set up as a rent collector for one of the solicitor’s ex-clients, and from there, establishes himself as an estate agent, after which follow a number of other business ventures – from seaside entertainment through chocolate, a co-operative and a local newspaper - and then investments, culminating in him becoming the wealthiest person in town, and ending with his election as the town’s mayor.

Denry has a resolutely positive outlook on life, outstanding resilience, and the ability to see the opportunity in all situations and act quickly: “Bursley … had been mysteriously transformed into an oyster and Denry felt strangely that the oyster-knife was lying about somewhere handy, but just out of sight, and that presently he should spy it and seize it … he saw what a fine thing it was to be a free man, under orders from nobody.”

And yet Bennett’s attitude towards his hero is opaque. He comments: “Every life is a series of coincidences. Nothing happens that is not rooted in coincidence. All great changes find their cause in coincidence.” That may be true, but the outcomes which change the world are effected by those able to spot and exploit opportunity. As someone once said to me, if you’re going to go on a deer hunt, the first thing you need to know is what a deer looks like.

Is Denry ahead of his time? Is Bennett scathing (but his peers admiring) because he doesn’t MAKE anything, like his industrial peers? “And he knew of a surety that he was that most admired type in the bustling, industrial provinces – a card … No doubt because he was not by nature a business man at all, but an adventurous spirit who happened to be in a business which was much too good to leave.”

It’s worth remembering that at this time, the professions (based in London, and skewed towards running the Empire), were probably the most revered of vocations, and entrepreneurship in the provinces – although still the engine room of the country – was losing its shine. Quite possibly, this period marked the beginning of the centralisation of the UK which we’re now attempting to reverse through the levelling-up agenda.

On the other hand, there’s a whiff of “globalism” about Denry which is scorned by his contemporaries but seemingly admired by Bennett: “Denry learnt that he had committed the sin of not being a native of Lalandudno. He was a stranger, and he was taking money out of the town.”

Whether Bennett is scathing or admiring of his hero – and what in turn we are to conclude - remains hazy. Bennett was famously the author of the UK’s first self-help book (How to Live on Twenty Four Hours a Day (1908)) which extols the virtues of self-discipline in order to effect self-improvement. The philosophy behind this is rooted in iron dedication and willpower, so it’s possible that Denry’s style offended Victorian/Edwardian values.

We presume that the term “card” is derogatory – it may have had a different meaning in its day, but nevertheless, it doesn’t smack of someone to take seriously. One imagines that Denry would have been perceived differently in North America, and indeed it’s interesting to note that a fellow town councillor – a previously feted wealthy property developer – goes bankrupt and finds it necessary to disappear to Canada to start a new life.

The novel ends with the conclusion of the outgoing mayor (whose views we can read as Bennett’s): “’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.’”

Denry is certainly a colourful character – not unlike Richard Branson or Elon Musk. But, like them, he’s also created value, jobs, strengthened the local community (not least by saving the local football team); created an enduring co-operative and become a great ambassador for his town. Chancer or entrepreneur? Both – but the first is essential to the latter, and that’s how the world progresses.

This was a fun, fast and thought-provoking read for all of our times. Available at no charge as a public domain ebook, it’s perfect for racing through on an iPhone. Here’s to all the cards out there.

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