Blog #146: Anna of the Five Towns in To the Lighthouse

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“I’m the hare, a long way ahead of the hounds my critics.” Diary, 1931

In one of my Cowper tunnel blogs, I described my task for that particular tunnel as primarily one of resurveying and verification. For this entry on Anna of the Five Towns, I won’t even be verifying. I have yet to read Anna of the Five Towns, and before doing so, if ever, I still have to read Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, and, possibly, War and Peace. The harder I hare after Virginia, the farther behind I get. The quantity of her reading is staggering, particularly when you realize that, for her, reading went far beyond the exposure to impression or sensation. For Virginia, reading meant vigorous intellectual engagement and, often, assimilation.

Because I have yet to read Anna, this Bennett blog will be relatively superficial. I don’t want to do much more than to call attention to and register findings recorded by Meirion Owen in her June 2007, Notes and Queries piece, “The Resonance of Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.” As evidence that Virginia had Bennett’s novel in mind when writing hers, Meirion points out that Virginia owned a 1912 Methuen edition of Anna of the Five Towns, and that To the Lighthouse and Anna of the Five Towns share “parallel motifs of uncertain women painters and mackerel mutilated—hacked alive—by the sons of fishermen.” Meirion even goes so far as to state that “the idea for the emotional and creative centre of To the Lighthouse, as well as the germ of its polemical content, is then to be found crystallized in a few pages of Bennett’s novel.”

Even if she overstates her case somewhat, Meirion’s argument is convincing. The plot parallels between To the Lighthouse and Chapter X of Anna of the Five Towns are too numerous and specific to be coincidental. For the Isle of Mann, To the Lighthouse substitutes the Isle of Skye, and in both books you have a family boat excursion in which the family are guided by a fisherman and in his son. In both books, the fishermen catch mackerel and bait their hooks with flesh cut from still living fish. Further, Lily painting on the lawn above the sea, while the sailboat journeys towards the lighthouse, provides an echo of Henry and Anna rowing in the dinghy while Beatrice paints on the cliffs above them; and, as Meirion points out, Lily’s sensitivity to male criticism and her need for privacy while painting deepen the parallel between her and Beatrice.

To the Lighthouse continues Anna of the Five Towns and should be judged against it. Anna is every bit as much of an intertextual foil as are Macbeth, Heart of Darkness, Howards End, Anna Karenina, and Middlemarch, to name only some of the more obvious To the Lighthouse foils. Arnold Bennett is as worthy of consideration as William Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, and George Eliot. Despite her well known quarrel with Bennett and the Edwardians, a quarrel most clearly articulated in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs Brown” (1923), “Character in Fiction” (1924), and “Modern Fiction” (1925), Virginia admired and respected Bennett, referring to him in her diary as “a lovable sea lion,” and in a 1919 letter singling out “his very astute realism.” In “Modern Fiction” she even talks about “his magnificent apparatus for catching life.”

Virginia’s disagreement with Bennett centered on characterization. She agreed with Bennett that character was central to the novel, but she disagreed with the aims and means of Edwardian characterization. To her, Bennett and the Edwardians were materialists, “concerned not with the spirit but with the body.” They “laid an enormous stress on the fabric of things.” In focusing on the material, they spent “immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.” For Virginia, the Edwardian writers were bootmakers trying to make watches. Their characters are circumscribed and lack variability. Their efforts to prove the solidity of their creations prevented them from catching the myriad impressions which the mind receives, the constituents of consciousness, “the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain.” Their characters lack the life of the spirit.

To the Lighthouse continues Virginia’s argument. By incorporating plot elements from Anna of the Five Towns (and possibly yet to be discovered plot elements from other Bennett novels), Virginia gives a demonstration of what Bennett might have achieved had he made better use of his skills. To the Lighthouse is indeed evidence that “Mr. Bennett has come down with his magnificent apparatus for catching life just an inch or two on the wrong side.” In conscious and deliberate opposition to Bennett, Virginia shows life, “this unvarying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible.” Buttons and boots are not necessary to prove the solidity of her creation. To praise boots is to “solace” the soul, not to attempt to contain life in “ill-fitting vestments.”

As well as plot elements from Anna, To the Lighthouse incorporates arguments and images from Virginia’s essays about Bennett and the Edwardians. Again and again in To the Lighthouse we see “life as a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Again and again we see the “incessant shower of innumerable atoms,” and the mind as it “receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel.” Virginia’s speculations in “Character in Fiction” or “Modern Fiction” are further developed in the “Time Passes” segment or in Lily’s musings about the meaning of life and “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.”

Further, Mrs Brown, “a will-o’-the-wisp, a dancing light, an illumination gliding up the wall and out of the window, lighting now in freakish malice upon the nose of an archbishop, now in sudden splendour upon the mahogany of the wardrobe,” is reincarnated—reinluxated, rather—as Mrs. Ramsay, “faint and flickering, like a yellow beam or the circle at the end of a telescope… wandering over the bedroom wall, up the dressing-table, across the wash-stand.” In the novel, the Ramsay house is a narrowly rescued version of Mrs. Bennett’s house in the essay. Instead of “the house in which she has lived so long (and a very substantial house it was) topples to the ground,” we have “If the feather had fallen, if it had tipped the scale downwards, the whole house would have plunged to the depths to lie upon the sands of oblivion.” In rescuing and preserving the Ramsay house as a “habitable dwelling place,” To the Lighthouse triumphantly signals itself as “the next chapter in the history of literature.”


Both lines came in together, and on each was a pounder. Anna saw her fish gleam and flash like silver in the clear water as it neared the surface. Henry held the line short, letting the mackerel plunge and jerk, and then seized and unhooked the catch.
‘How cruel!’ Anna cried, startled at the nearness of the two fish as they sprang about in an old sugar box at her feet. Young Tom laughed loud at her exclamation. ‘They cairn’t feel, miss,’ he sniggered. Anna wondered that a mouth so soft and kind could utter such heartless words.

In an hour the united efforts of the party had caught nine mackerel; it was not a multitude, but the sun, in perfecting the weather, had spoilt the sport. Anna had ceased to commiserate the captured fish. She was obliged, however, to avert her head when Tom cut some skin from the side of one of the mackerel to provide fresh bait; this device seemed to her the extremest refinement of cruelty. Beatrice grew ominously silent and inert, and Mrs. Sutton glanced first at her daughter and then at her husband; the latter nodded.

‘I’m going to paint,’ said Beatrice, with a resolute mien. ‘I want to paint Bradda Head frightfully. I tried last year, but I got it too dark, somehow. I’ve improved since then. What are you going to do?’

‘We’ll come and watch you,’ said Henry.

‘Oh, no, you won’t. At least you won’t; you’re such a critic. Anna can if she likes.’

‘What! And me be left all afternoon by myself?’

‘Well, suppose you go with him, Anna, just to keep him from being bored?’

Anna hesitated. Once more she had the uncomfortable suspicion that Mynors and herself were being manoeuvred.

‘Look here,’ said Mynors to Beatrice. ‘Have you decided absolutely to paint?’

‘Absolutely.’ The finality of the answer seemed to have a touch of resentment.

‘Then’—he turned to Anna—’let’s go and get that dinghy and row about the bay. Eh?’

She could offer no rational objection, and they were soon putting off from the jetty, impelled seaward by a mighty push from Kelly’s arm. It was very hot. Mynors wore white flannels. He removed his coat, and turned up his sleeves, showing thick, hairy arms. He sculled in a manner almost dramatic, and the dinghy shot about like a water-spider on a brook. Anna had nothing to do except to sit still and enjoy. Everything was drowned in dazzling sunlight, and both Henry and Anna could feel the process of tanning on their faces. The bay shimmered with a million diamond points; it was impossible to keep the eyes open without frowning, and soon Anna could see the beads of sweat on Henry’s crimson brow.

‘Warm?’ she said. This was the first word of conversation. He merely smiled in reply. Presently they were at the other side of the bay, in a cave whose sandy and rock-strewn floor trembled clear under a fathom of blue water. They landed on a jutting rock; Henry pushed his straw hat back, and wiped his forehead. ‘Glorious! glorious!’ he exclaimed. ‘Do you swim? No? You should get Beatrice to teach you. I swam out here this morning at seven o’clock. It was chilly enough then. Oh! I forgot, I told you at breakfast.’
She could see him in the translucent water, swimming with long, powerful strokes. Dozens of boats were moving lazily in the bay, each with a cargo of parasols.

‘There’s a good deal of the sunshade afloat,’ he remarked. ‘Why haven’t you got one? You’ll get as brown as Tom Kelly.’

‘That’s what I want,’ she said.

‘Look at yourself in the water there,’ he said, pointing to a little pool left on the top of the rock by the tide. She did so, and saw two fiery cheeks, and a forehead divided by a horizontal line into halves of white and crimson; the tip of the nose was blistered.

‘Isn’t it disgraceful?’ he suggested.

‘Why,’ she exclaimed, ‘they’ll never know me when I get home!’

It was in such wise that they talked, endlessly exchanging trifles of comment. Anna thought to herself: ‘Is this love-making?’ It could not be, she decided; but she infinitely preferred it so. She was content. She wished for nothing better than this apparently frivolous and irresponsible dalliance. She felt that if Mynors were to be tender, sentimental, and serious, she would become wretchedly self-conscious.

They re-embarked, and, skirting the shore, gradually came round to the beach. Up above them, on the cliffs, they could discern the industrious figure of Beatrice, with easel and sketching-umbrella, and all the panoply of the earnest amateur.

‘Do you sketch?’ she asked him.

‘Not I!’ he said scornfully.

‘Don’t you believe in that sort of thing, then?’

‘It’s all right for professional artists,’ he said; ‘people who can paint. But—— Well, I suppose it’s harmless for the amateurs—finds them something to do.’

‘I wish I could paint, anyway,’ she retorted.

‘I’m glad you can’t,’ he insisted.

When they got back to the cliffs, towards tea-time, Beatrice was still painting, but in a new spot. She seemed entirely absorbed in her work, and did not hear their approach.

‘Let’s creep up and surprise her,’ Mynors whispered. ‘You go first, and put your hands over her eyes.’

‘Oh!’ exclaimed Beatrice, blindfolded; ‘how horrid you are, Henry! I know who it is—I know who it is.’

‘You just don’t, then,’ said Henry, now in front of her. Anna removed her hands.

‘Well, you told her to do it, I’m sure of that. And I was getting on so splendidly! I shan’t do another stroke now.’

‘That’s right,’ said Henry. ‘You’ve wasted quite enough time as it is.’

Beatrice pouted. She was evidently annoyed with both of them. She looked from one to the other, jealous of their mutual understanding and agreement. Mr. and Mrs. Sutton issued from the house, and the five stood chatting till tea was ready; but the shadow remained on Beatrice’s face.

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