Edwardian Encounters: ‘The Glimpse’ by Arnold Bennett

'Self-Portrait' by Charles Conder (Tullie House) [Charles Conder is one of several artists mentioned in 'The Glimpse']

‘Self-Portrait’ by Charles Conder (Tullie House) [Charles Conder is one of several artists mentioned in ‘The Glimpse’]

Arnold Bennett, The Glimpse, (London: Chapman and Hall, 1909)

Arnold Bennett has been described as a materialist, a realist, a writer whose novels have ‘a narrative emphasis on the drab, the squalid and the mundane’. [1] He was, however, also capable of dreaming. In one such dream, he writes that he ‘stood by my own dead body and saw the pennies upon my eyes. I cannot remember at this distance of time what the rest of the dream was, but it had to do with the adventures of a soul after death’.[2]

Never one to waste good material, Bennett immediately saw the potential for a story, and in May 1908 he wrote the short story ‘The Glimpse’ about the proprietor of a Staffordshire earthenware factory who has an out-of-body experience whilst lying in bed close to death. Bennett quickly came to the view that the material of the story was capable of being much more fully developed into a full-length novel with sound commercial prospects. Belief in Spiritualism was widespread, so the story of a soul’s adventures at the point of death would not lack a potential audience. Bennett wrote and published his approximately 70,000 word novel The Glimpse in 1909, between his two longer and better-known acknowledged masterpieces The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) and Clayhanger (1910).

Significant changes were made between the short story and the novel. Bennett dropped the nameless Potteries industrial as first-person narrator and substituted Morrice Loring, a London intellectual, a writer on music who was also a connoisseur of art and lived not in Waterloo Road Burslem but in a luxurious apartment near Hyde Park.

The novel is divided into three approximately equal sections. In the first, Loring accidentally discovers that his bored and neglected wife Inez is planning an affair with one of his close friends. This is such a shock to Loring that he is struck down into a coma with what turns out to be an attack of angina pectoris but is at the time taken by him, his wife and servants to be death. In the second part, Loring’s soul has an out-of-body experience of considerable length and detail while in the third the soul returns to the body at precisely the moment when Inez has taken a fatal dose of oxalic acid in remorse at having caused her husband’s death. Bennett explores the effects on Loring’s character of these extraordinary experiences over the next few months of his life.

Before returning to the novel, I will briefly sketch Bennett’s views on religion and the supernatural. Bennett was not a member of any organised religion. He was quick to shake off the Wesleyan Methodism he was brought up in, and did not convert to his wife’s religion when he married a Catholic Frenchwoman. But he did hold to the notion that we have immortal souls.[3] He reasoned that since the mind controls the body, and it is possible to control and train the mind (several of his successful self-help books tell us how this is to be achieved), something outside the mind must control it. This is the ‘soul’ that will survive death. Philosophers will find this unconvincing: Bennett has ignored the fact that mechanisms can be self-regulating. Even my electric kettle knows when to turn itself off. But Bennett was not a philosopher and it made sense to him. Some of his writings advocate the use of meditation on these truths and are almost Buddhist in flavour. However, in The Glimpse, Bennett made wholesale use of the doctrines of the then-popular Theosophy movement, with its doctrines of reincarnation and ‘planes’ of existence beyond the lowest physical one in which we spend our everyday lives.

He had been attracted to Theosophy while cherry-picking some ideas for his self-help books from Annie Besant’s Thought Power: Its Control and Culture. He was more sceptical of the transcendental and numinous aspects of Theosophy, but was happy to use them to provide a structure for Loring’s journeys in the after-life. Once the novel was written he promptly ditched them: as he comments in a letter to his sister, ‘I have now made Theosophy serve my turn, & have done with it . . . What chiefly interests me now is the sales.’

The first and third sections of the book contain much writing characteristic of Bennett’s best work. Unusually, he employs a first-person narrator in Loring and is successful in creating an at-times rather precious style for the London aesthete. There is an acute and psychologically penetrating portrait of a marriage in crisis, relying heavily on autobiographical material drawn from the strains in his own relatively-recent marriage. Most readers will find the central section, in which Loring’s soul journeys in the higher planes of existence before being unwillingly summoned back to life as rather more challenging and much less accessible. However, the book is unified by seeing how the insights and lessons Loring’s soul has gained in the second section affect his life and attitudes in the third. Broadly, what he has learned is that we all have souls, and are therefore all of equal worth. This may seem trite, but is much less so in an age which was infected with a pernicious and snobbish elitism derived from Nietzsche, moral panics about over-population caused by the unrestrained breeding of lower and inferior classes and races and the belief by most men that they were intrinsically superior to women. Loring realises that despite his intellectual accomplishments, he possesses only a middling sort of soul, no better than those of his female servants. He becomes kinder to them, seeing them as fellow humans rather than just cogs in the mechanism of his comfortable home. He forgives the man who was planning to cuckold him, and spends more time with his niece. He mourns his dead wife, but finds comfort in his new certainty that her soul has survived and will be reincarnated. Perhaps the most important thing Bennett took from Theosophy was not its spiritual metaphysics but its core ethical belief in the ‘universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour’.[4]

The novel was not the commercial success that Bennett hoped for, and has been out of print for many years, although it is now easily accessible via online second-hand booksellers and in free downloads.

Paul Jordan, May 2015 [Paul is a PhD student at Keele University working on Bennett’s representations of women in his fiction and drama 1895-1918]

[1]    Edwardian Fiction: An Oxford Companion ed. by Sandra Kemp, Charlotte Mitchell and David Trotter, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) p. 27.

[2]    Arnold Bennett, ‘My Religious Experience’ in Arnold Bennett: Sketches for Autobiography ed. by James Hepburn, (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1979) p. 172.

[3]    Arnold Bennett, The Reasonable Life, (London: A. C. Fifield, 1907) pp. 56-60

[4]    Lilian Edger, The Elements of Theosophy, (London and Benares: The Theosophical Publishing Society, 1907), p. 203

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