A lighthearted story published in Arnold Bennett’s The Grim Smile of the Five Towns. The story is narrated by a young man, Philip, who travels from London to his childhood home in Bursely, one of the five towns indicated in the title of the collection. In the story, Philip returns home to visit his widowed mother for Christmas and also to inform her of his engagement to a young woman named Agnes. Although Philip regularly writes to his mother, he feels it impossible to explain his feelings for Agnes and their recent engagement in a letter. Upon greeting his mother, Philip notices that she is more excited and nervous than usual, and he guesses that she has somehow discovered his engagement. His suspicions are further raised when he sees that the dining table has been set for three. Instead of Agnes, however, an old family friend, Mr. Nixon, arrives for dinner. Philip admits that he is slightly dismayed since he desires to disclose his news to his mother in private. Unable to stop thinking of his engagement, Philip leaves dinner momentarily to dispatch a letter to Agnes informing her of his safe arrival. When he returns home he is met by a solitary Mr. Nixon, who tells Philip that he has become engaged to his mother. Mr. Nixon explains that they had gradually fallen in love, but that Philip’s mother did not feel comfortable disclosing the news in a letter. Philip laughs at the irony of the situation and decides not to reveal his own good news that evening. At the conclusion of the story, Philip admits that he had never thought of his mother as a woman with a future; he had never before realized that she was desirable.
While Bennett (1867–1931) is perhaps best known for his realist provincial novels, such as The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) and Clayhanger (1910), he was also a prolific short story writer. In fact, he first received critical attention in 1895 with the publication of his short story “The Letter Home” in the Yellow Book. Throughout his lifetime, Bennett published seven volumes of short stories.
Bennett was born in Hanley, Staffordshire, one of the five pottery towns that served as the setting for much of his fiction. In “News of the Engagement,” Philip returns home to the potteries from London and assumes that nothing has changed in his sleepy childhood town. He is surprised to learn, though, that life has changed for his mother. Philip’s surprise that a man might desire his mother and that “her lonely existence in that house was not all that she had the right to demand from life” reveals his naïveté and his youthful self-absorption (244). His realization also highlights the fact that women’s sexual existence did not end in youth or middle age. Bennett felt impelled to represent this in his fiction. He once claimed, “I had always revolted against the absurd youthfulness, the unfading youthfulness of the average heroine” (preface to The Old Wives’ Tale), and his novel Leonora (1903), in which the heroine is 40 years old, is an early manifestation of this revolt. The desire to depict realistic lives of older women would later influence his writing of The Old Wives’ Tale, which traces the lives of its two heroines, Constance and Sophia, from youth to old age.
Bennett, Arnold. “News of the Engagement,” In The Tales of the Five Towns. London: Chatto & Windus, 1964.
———. The Old Wives’ Tale. 1908. New York: The Modern Library, 1999.
Broomfield, Olga. Arnold Bennett. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Lucas, John. Arnold Bennett: A Study of His Fiction. London: Methuen, 1974.
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story
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