ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS is a 1902 novel by Arnold Bennett. Set in late 19th Century Staffordshire, the novel is drenched in facts and background but is also quirkily non-fictional both as to facts and background. Thus the "five towns" of the title were and are in fact "six" towns which now make up the one city of Stoke-on-Trent in northern Staffordshire, England. In ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS Arnold Bennett changed the name of each town and thought "five towns" more euphonious than "six towns."
This area, also known as "the Potteries" has been steadily exploited since Roman times for its fine clays to make pottery and other ceramic products. Author Bennett wrote about "the Potteries" valleys again and again.
I read this novel because scholars told me it would help me prepare to teach a recently completed adult education course in "Young Rudyard Kipling." For in those very Staffordshire moorlands during a picnic on Lake Rudyard, John Lockwood Kipling met Alice Macdonald in 1863. They became the parents of Joseph Rudyard Kipling, born December 30, 1865 in Bombay, India. Now you can guess where the winner of the 1907 Nobel Prize in Literature got his middle name. They met through Alice's brother, a Methodist minister in the town where John Lockwood Kipling lived and worked.
ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS is the story of Anna Tellwright. When she turns 21, her miserly father turns over to her 50,000 pounds of assets inherited from her long dead mother. Anna and her much younger half-sister Agnes are unloved offspring of two deceased wives of Ephraim Tellwright. They live without love under the oppressive thumb of their Methodist financial superstar father.
Anna is successfully courted by rising local ceramics entrepreneur Henry Mynors. But at novel's end it becomes suddenly and inexplicably clear that her real love is young Willie Price. Greedy Tellwright has driven Willie's manufacturer father Titus Price to commit suicide. Throughout all this Anna Tellwright is portrayed as wishing she were loved by anyone at all and always meaning in some way or other to stand up to her tyrannical father. She also wants to save Willie and Titus Price from the ruin accelerated for them by Ephraim Tellwright. But she achieves nothing of note on either front.
The one thing that Anna manages to do in the face of enormous Methodist church pressure is not to come forward for Jesus during a weeklong revival. She is religiously cool and verges on agnosticism.
ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS is about characters every single one of whom is Methodist. If any of them showed any effective Christian milk of human kindness, it alluded me. Both of Rudyard Kipling's grandfathers were Methodist ministers. And his parents John Lockwood and Alice were raised profoundly Methodist, but reacted against their inherited religion.
ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS is a fine novel for grasping an ugly, smoke-permeated late 19th Century industrial town dominated in every aspect by Methodism and Methodists. The edition that I have is that of Oxford University Press (1995) in the World's Classics Series. It is edited with an introduction by Professor Margaret Harris of the University of Sydney. Its greatest lack, in my opinion, is a map or map of Staffordshire, "the Potteries," Rudyard Lake and environs. But its end notes are extensive and are a boon for understanding history, geography, religion, politics and dialect of that region of England. A good read. -OOO-
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