Clayhanger stood on the steep-sloping, red-bricked canal bridge, in the
valley between Bursley and its suburb Hillport. In that neighbourhood the
Knype and Mersey canal formed the western boundary of the industrialism of
the Five Towns.
To the east
rose pitheads, chimneys, and kilns, tier above tier, dim in their own
mists. To the west, Hillport Fields, grimed but possessing authentic
hedgerows and winding paths, mounted broadly up to the sharp ridge on
which stood Hillport Church, a landmark.
ridge, and partly protected by it from the driving smoke of the Five
Towns, lay the fine and ancient Tory borough of Oldcastle..."
In this, the first volume of an
ambitious trilogy intending to trace the parallel lives of a man and
woman from youth to marriage and from marriage to old age, Bennett
introduces the character of Edwin Clayhanger.
A sober portrait of a boy growing
up under a tyrannical father contrasts with young Edwins glimpses of
the mysterious and tantalizing Hilda Lessways.
As the lives of these two
characters unfold before us, Bennett uses autobiographical detail to
beautifully depict the constraints and spiritual adventures of young
life in the Potteries.
Edwin's father Darius supported his extremely poor family even during his early childhood, and rose to become one of the key men in the "Five Towns".
Edwin Clayhanger is not fully aware of his father's history, and therefore rather takes for granted much of his family's affluence and influence.
Edwin allows his ambition to become an architect to be over-ruled by his domineering
father, and becomes instead an unwilling (and underpaid) office junior in his father's printing business. He does mildly revolt against his father and his family. While he is capable of seeing through the many hypocrisies of Victorian England, he does not confront them or become his own man until his father's final illness and death hand him control of his business.
The triumph of the book, is not in outlining Edwin's escape from the respectable bourgeoisie, but in detailing its effect on his life, and his submission to it.
In one of the earlier chapters in the book, Bennett writes that Edwin had only heard of a philosopher as 'someone who made the best of a bad job' and in some ways that is what Edwin has to do in the book - survive under a stifling layer of conduct imposed by his father, his church and the society he is part of. Although his friendship with the Orgreave family provide intellectual stimulation, they are as much part of 5 Towns life as anyone; this is why Edwin ends up rejecting the unspoken offer of Janet Orgreave as partner, and falls instead for the less attractive, impoverished but exotic Hilda Lessways.
Lessways is the second in the Clayanger trilogy