How author Arnold Bennett gave his name to an omelette and a Hornsey street
- Credit: Alamy
There's no Blue Plaque outside 46 Alexandra Road in Hornsey, but hidden away there is a narrow alley bearing the name Arnold Bennett Way - the only obvious reminder of the author’s life in north London.
Bennett may now be remembered mainly for The Old Wives’ Tale and Clayhanger - and the eponymous smoked haddock omelette conjured up to please him during his lengthy stay at The Savoy in 1929. But by his 1920s heyday he was one of the wealthiest and celebrated writers in the English language.
As a Highgate author who has spent more than four years researching Bennett’s life, I believe that the time he spent in Hornsey between 1889-90 was an important but unsung influence on his later writing. This is one of the themes of my biography, Arnold Bennett, Lost Icon out this month.
It was in Alexandra Road that a 21-year-old Bennett arrived as a lodger in March 1889 after breaking free from an unhappy upbringing in the Staffordshire Potteries. His dream was to write. But to support himself, he had secured a £200-a-year salary as a legal clerk at Lincoln’s Inn Fields solicitors Le Brasseur and Oakley.
Few writers of his generation had lived in the ever widening belt of suburbs that had become a dormitory for the downtrodden City worker. But it was this experience which helped Bennett's writing connect so strongly with the common man.
For all his hopes of bettering himself, Hornsey in the late Victorian era was far from the the glitzy London of Bennett’s imagination. Decades later when he wrote the Clayhanger trilogy, he remembered it as a place where "where dark torrents of human beings" emerge from "identical newly built houses" to begin the hellish morning commute.
He knew well the physical toll from working six days a week as a City clerk - many trudged to the offices by foot, along muddy pavements and roads foetid with horse dung.
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But the greatest price paid by this army of poorly paid office workers was the mental cost of having no time or energy for anything outside of earning a living. Bennett wrote: "The tired feeling hangs heavy over the mighty suburbs of London - you feel and note that old age is creeping upon you."
It was in Hornsey that Bennett was inspired with the idea for self-help books designed to help the City wage-slave look beyond the constraints of his next pay cheque. How To Live on 24-hours A Day (1912) remains his best known. In reality, its central premise is pure common-sense - the need to carve out time for activities outside the workplace. These are practical tracts written in actionable detail. Bennett’s rallying cry was to build an inner life of cultural and mentally stimulating interests - whatever the demands of earning a living. Any shortage of money, Bennett argued (not entirely seriously) could be solved by earning more - or even stealing it.
But time is different; no matter who they are, everybody gets the same allocation of 24 hours a day. As with all Bennett’s self help books, the common sense arguments are drawn from the way he lived his own life. Above all, it involved stretching out the working day by reducing hours asleep to have more time for improving activities. For those who struggled to leave their beds, he championed the early morning "tea ceremony" which Bennett considered "essential for the wise balancing of one’s whole life". Prepared the night before, this involved "two biscuits, a cup and saucer, a box of matches, a spirit lamp, a saucepan, and on the saucepan - but turned the wrong way up the reversed lid containing a minute quality of tea leaves". As a rallying call for a work life balance, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day was a pioneering work on a subject which remains in continual debate.
By the later 1890s, Bennett had moved on to the glitzier world of Chelsea - and later still Chiltern Court in Baker Street.
But he kept up his canon of self-help books (along with other novels and plays). With Mental Efficiency and Self and Self-Management, Bennett made inroads into marriage counselling with The Plain man and his Wife. With Feast of St. Friend, perhaps the quirkiest in this canon, he made a convincing case for the celebration of Christmas and New Year by those who were too godless or jaded to care about seasonal jollities. He had a huge following in Britain - but in the US before the First World War, he was a publishing phenomenon with New York book shops promoting him as a "Philosopher and Preacher". Bennett, seemingly, had the answer to all of life’s biggest questions.
He never forgot his life in Hornsey - he was one of the few writers of his day to write specifically for the working man. At the peak of his fame, Bennett's self-help books would have doubtless been widely read along Alexandra Road.
Patrick Donovan lives in Highgate and Arnold Bennett, Lost Icon is published by Unicorn Publishing Group, price £25.