A highly satisfying novel of wish fulfillment bounds onto your screen in this Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up. In Arnold Bennett’s The Regent (1913), a wealthy provincial magnate builds a London theatre by whose success he confounds the city folk who know better than he does. There are no agonies and no tense little scenes of social drama in this novel. It is pure uncomplicated pleasure.
The hero, Edward Henry Machin, is a man too big for his house, and for his town, so when he is let loose on London it’s a big relief for us all. He is a Bursley businessman who hasn’t enough to do. He’s made all the money he wants, he is driving his wife and mother to distraction forcing new domestic inventions into the house that they don’t want and don’t see the need for. His mother in particular is grimly resistant, and his exasperated wife just wants him out of the house so that she can get on with housekeeping the way she wants.
Arnold Bennett was a stiff-necked and highly capable Staffordshire writer, author of over thirty novels and short story collections, and plenty of non-fiction as well. He was proudly provincial, but also European, having lived for many years in France where he cohabited with a French actress. He wrote many novels about The Potteries, the crockery-making district of the Midlands of England, and most of his characters have Midlands roots and values, representing the heartland of England as an industrial nation. Bennett has been labelled the epitome of middlebrow writing because he wrote novels to entertain and to sell, not to experiment or to create innovation.
The Regent absolutely entertains but it also holds a mirror up to a rapidly changing and modernising society. The story is packed with admiration for modern inventions that make life easier and business more efficient. Edward Henry uses the telephone all the time, and pulls off a remarkable little deception using the phone which I would never have expected in a novel of 1913: it’s exactly what I would have expected from a ruthless business deal of the 1980s.
Edward Henry goes out in a huff one evening, hurt that his domestic helpfulness is rejected in his own house. He finds himself at the theatre. To his surprise some business cronies invite him to join them in their box, and he finds himself being lobbied to buy 50% of an option to develop a plot of land off Piccadilly into a theatre. That’s Piccadilly, London, not Piccadilly, Manchester, and Edward Henry has hardly ever been to London. But he does know business and he is no fool. Somehow, as part of the discussion, he rises to an additional challenge, which is to stay at London’s most exclusive hotel, the Grand Babylon, while he’s down there looking at this plot of land. (The Grand Babylon Hotel is an invention, of course, by Bennett, whose rather good novel of the same title was published in 1902.)
He at last has a project that takes all his time and attention, and is suitably audacious for his formidable energies. He learns about London ways, but he also deals with London people by applying simple business techniques to the management of money. Nobody quivers with tension for chapters on end, and nobody is slighted or crushed for ever by the cold lift of an aristocratic eyebrow. Maybe I’ve been reading too many 1913 novels about sensitive souls who take themselves too seriously, but The Regent was so refreshing for its complete lack of pretension. It is also pleasant to read an English novel in which London is not the centre of the universe, just for a change.
Edward Henry brazens it out, with extreme attention to detail, and the ensuing sub-plot of how he will impress the Grand Babylon staff is an excellent undercurrent of humour for the remainder of the novel. He secures a valet, orders new clothes, takes a suite, and starts to look the part that he is now playing in earnest: a wealthy entrepreneur about to move into the London property market, and the theatre. He’s still quaking inside, but he know that he’s tough, and that he can do this, and he carries the reader’s confidence with him.
When Edward Henry meets the other shareholders he finally feels in control. They’re all theatrical types; more concerned with naming the as yet unbuilt and undesigned theatre than with discussing its business plan or its capacity. Edward Henry can run these amateurs singlehanded, and in fact he runs them off the project entirely, getting rid of this useless baggage by buying their shares. They’re all so impoverished they will happily take his ready cash and abandon the idea of their own theatre in return of the assurance of some rent paid and expensive meals. And now that they’re off his hands, so he thinks, Edward Henry can get down to making his own plans for the theatre.
This is the clever thing about the story: Edward Henry had no interest at all in taking on a theatre project at the beginning, but when he found an opportunity asking to be taken up, suddenly building a theatre was exactly the thing he wanted to do. It solved his domestic problems too, because he could rampage about London instead of about his beleaguered house and a town he already controlled and was bored of.
How he manages his campaign, how he navigates past London’s aristocratic lawyers, how he wriggles out of the manipulations of actresses and the cunning of journalists, all these make up the joy of this novel. We’ve already had the highly satisfying encounters with pretentious actor types, and now we meet the completely unpretentious Lady Waldo, the owner of the freehold and a former actress who would just love to go back to the stage. This gives Edward Henry just the lever he needs to get her lawyers off his back and release the land for a theatre instead of a church for their preferred religious sect. I particularly enjoyed Edward Henry’s avoidance tactic for Miss Elsie April, the leading femme fatale of the stage, who plans to conquer him in her usual manner. She is discomfited by Edward Henry bringing his wife and children down to London especially to meet her. He also manipulates Isabel Joy, the roaming suffragette, who is on a round the world tour of no more than 100 days in which she has undertaken to be arrested a certain number of times. Because the papers are more interested in her, than in Edward Henry’s new Regent Theatre, he has to find a way of getting her off the front page, or getting onto the front page with her.
A different author might have had Edward Henry run off with Elsie April, or have his venture fail, but Bennett was not writing melodrama, but domestic sensibility. It’s a good thing to keep your feet on the ground, to know where you come from and what your worth is, and it will not stop you having adventures. Edward Henry is also nicely uninterested in being a star himself. He appears on stage to congratulate the audience on liking his first production, but that’s because he can’t think of anything else to say, and by that point he is in the thick of his planning for his next endeavour. He’s a producer, not a director, and operates steps ahead of everyone else in the business. He is a gust of refreshing no nonsense, as is this excellent novel.