‘Hugo’ (1906) by Arnold Bennett

Posted by Matt Foley on March 03, 2010 in Blog tagged with

By Arnold Bennett
In my last post I revisited Edith Birkhead’s The Tale of Terror (1921). In one of the chunks that I quoted Birkhead mentions that Arnold Bennett’s Hugo (1906)
may be read as a modernised version of the Gothic romance. Instead of subterranean vaults in a deserted abbey, we have the strong rooms of an enterprising Sloane Street emporium. The coffin, containing an image of the heroine, is buried not in a mouldering chapel, but in a suburban cemetery. The lovely but harassed heroine has fallen, indeed, from her high estate.

I will come back to Birkhead’s observations here shortly – particularly the “image of the heroine” buried in the cemetery – but first I will summarise the plot.  The novella begins in media res and we are very quickly introduced to the eponymous hero. Hugo is the ultimate high capitalist (think a 1906 Mohammed Al-Fayed) who builds a fantastic emporium that sells very nearly every good thought possible (think Harrods but bigger and better). Almost immediately Hugo falls in love with one of his shop assistants – the aforementioned Camilla. In spite of there being absolutely no depth to her character, or maybe because of it, Camilla is in high demand. She has already accepted the proposal of a terminally ill man Tudor who proposes to her before Hugo gets the chance. The quick engagement riles not only Hugo but also his much more sinister step-brother Ravengar (yes, a bad version of Gothic doubling is going on too) who intends to pursue and terrify the betrothed.  The book is full of so many ‘flat’ characters, to borrow a term from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, the plot is so recklessly fast and the style so under-whelming that it is hard to recommend Hugo as worth reading. However, there are two points that are perhaps of interest to Gothic scholars.

The first ties in with the novella’s overall focus on surface and “flat” characters as previously mentioned. In order to fake her own death, and in turn to deceive and avoid the wrath of Ravengar, Camilla colludes with Tudor to have an effigy of her corpse made and then buried in a London cemetery. This effigy recalls Udolpho and yet also makes a self-referential comment about the one-dimensional nature of the male characters’ attraction for Camilla. As Hugo opens the coffin he is both completely fooled by the counterfeit corpse and enchanted by its beauty:

Yes, it was Camilla! He had known always that it would be Camilla.

The pale repose of death only emphasized the proud and splendid beauty of that head, with its shut eyes, its mouth firmly closed in a faint smile, and its glorious hair surrounded by all the white frippery of the shroud. Here lay the mortal part of the incomparable creature who had been coveted by three men and won by one—for a few brief days’ possession. Here lay the repository of Ravengar’s secrets, the grave of Hugo’s happiness, the dead mate of Tudor’s desire. Here lay the eternal woman, symbol of all beauty and all charm, victimized by her own loveliness. For if she had not been lovely, thought Hugo, if the curves of her cheek and her nostrils and the colour of her skin had been ever so slightly different, the world might have contained one widower, one ruined heart, and one murderer the less that night. (Chapter 10)

Hugo emphasises that Camilla is ‘the symbol of all beauty and all charm’ but it’s hard to read her ‘charm’ as being related to her wit or ease of conversation and I would suggest this is still praise of her appearance. She is so vapid that the fault line that divides this “effigy” from the real but ‘flat’ character is precariously thin and reflects an inherent misogyny within the book.

The other point I want to make is about Bennett’s employment of the phonograph as a spectral technology that projects the will and testament of Tudor (who really does die after the plot to feign his and Camilla’s deaths) and in turn figures a type of haunting.  Curiously, Tudor’s recorded will gives him a ‘roundness’ in death that most of the other characters lack in life. His testimony also paints him as a man of the arts who was not immediately seduced by Camilla’s beauty but more quietly intrigued by it (in the passage that follows Tudor assumes that he is addressing his lawyer):
When I first met Camilla Payne she was shorthand clerk or private secretary, or whatever you call it, to Louis Ravengar. I saw her in his office. Curiously, she didn’t make a tremendous impression on me at the moment…  you must excuse my way of relating the facts. I can only tell the tale in my own way… I’ve dabbled in pretty nearly all the arts, including the art of fiction, and I can’t leave out the really interesting pieces of my narrative merely because you’re a lawyer and hate needless details, sentimental or otherwise. But do you hate sentimental details? I don’t know. Anyhow, this isn’t a counsel’s brief. (Chapter 19)
The first person account this recording provides acts, intentionally or otherwise, to foreground the one-dimensional nature of the other characters and also the cringe-worthy faux sentimentality of the story as a whole. Also, it is interesting that recordings such as these are attributed to the person as “dead” even though they are recorded when the speaker is very much alive. This is the gap in logic, however, that invites feelings of the spectral to proliferate.
Of course, it is not only recorded speech that can work in this way but also music. Part of the reason I am drawn to this section in retrospect is that just after reading it I heard the first single from the final instalment of Johnny Cash’s series of American covers on the radio. Cash died just after recording this epic six album collection with Rick Rubin as producer. Since his death the albums’ recordings have generated the same sort of uncanny feeling of being haunted through spectral technology that Bennett’s novella stages. Cash’s choice of song anticipates his death as Tudor also does in his testament:
There was something gut wrenching but epiphanic about reading Bennett and then being unexpectedly treated but unnerved by Cash on the radio. The song is lyrically concerned with an essence surviving in death. It is symptomatic of an unflinching belief in the human soul that is absent in Hugo’s emphasis on surface and commodification. Indeed, in ‘Ain’t no Grave’ the word ‘body’ becomes synonymous with ‘soul’ and supposed binary opposites are blurred. As opposing as the two would seem to be Bennett’s novella and Cash will also remain intrinsically linked for me. Hugo will be hard to shake off.



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