The Card – Arnold Bennett (1910)

The Card - BennettSubtitle: A Story of an Adventure in the Five Towns.

This novel has a similar feel to the humor of Jane Austen – class-based, omniscient POV, wicked humor etc. Denry Machin, the protagonist, aims to be “the Card,” which is (in this context) another name for the man about town and sort of ‘Big Man on Campus” idea despite being a lower class and thus socially challenged…

(His name comes up as his mother called him Edward Henry which then devolved into Denry….)

Starting with his early days as a young student, he found himself to be clever and willing to take advantage of any situations which could help him, and it’s this willingness (and his slightly “flexible” ethical attitude) which moves him up the financial and social ladder of this industrial northern town. He’s not an evil man – just a bit ethically “gray”, very ambitious and quick to grasp the lay of a situation.

Denry Machin, son of washerwoman and an apprentice clerk to a local businessman, illicitly puts his name on the invitation list to the ball of the new mayoress, and this was just the beginning of his climb up the social ladder. Bennett describes him thus:

“The thrill of being magnificent seized him, and he was drenched in a vast desire to be truly magnificent himself. He dreamt of magnificence and boot-brushes kept sticking out of this dream like black mud out of snow …”

And when he is at this big ball, the social event of the season, trying to fit in with toffs who were there, this is how he was thinking:

“Then he went downstairs again, idly; gorgeously feigning that he spent six evenings a week in ascending and descending monumental staircases, appropriately clad. He was determined to be as sublime as anyone… There was a stir in the corridor, and the sublimest consented to be excited.”

Denry has high social aims and although not devious, somehow ends up climbing the social ladder through odd means and coincidences. He is exceedingly impulsive trying to impress people (and successfully for the most part). In one situation, Denys offers to buy a house from a local woman from whom he is collecting rents but has no money. By doing so, he puts himself into a financial crisis, and immediately knows that he has got carried away with things. However, he couldn’t help himself:

But, as always when he did something crucial, spectacular, and effective, the deed had seemed to be done by a mysterious power within him, over which he had no control”

 And yet somehow, it seemed to work out one way or another in Denry’s favor as the plot continues. This is a light-hearted read with little serious social commentary, and it doesn’t try to be anything else. It takes Denry from the modest clerkship of a local businessman to the vaulted expensive hotels of Switzerland in a way that is quite believable and also unpredictable. As the other townspeople say in the novel, “What has Machin done now?” and it’s the same for the reader as you follow Denry’s meteoric rise. However, it’s not without incident and it’s not without mistakes, and yet somehow, Denry ends up landing on his feet.

If you’re after a fun read, then this would be a good fit. It’s quite short, it’s well written, and it’s humorous.   Wiki says that there is a 1952 movie of this book (U.S. title The Promoter) with Petula Clark and Alec Guinness which could be quite fun to compare.



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