Friday Fun: The King of Hearts

Arnold Bennett’s abundant literary output likely reflects the significant stammer he suffered since early childhood. It prevented him from giving public speeches throughout his life and likely contributed to his marrying late.

As biographer Margaret Drabble put it: “The hesitance of his speech made him more direct and incisive in his prose, but women do not marry prose.”

His first marriage endured 12 years before ending in a separation – his wife never consented to a divorce – and he found lasting love with the English actress Dorothy Cheston, the mother of his only child and his companion from their meeting in 1922 until his death in 1931.

Drabble recounts a particularly charming story about Bennett’s courtship of Cheston.

[Cheston] relates that every morning [Bennett] used to call for her at her hotel, to embark on the day’s activities, and would bring her a bunch of white flowers. ‘He carried these flowers tightly, holding his arm rather high up and rather rigidly. His gesture reminded me of the King of Hearts in a pack of cards.’

She says that it was not only his awkwardness, ‘due to emotion,’ that touched her – but it was also the fact that the flower-seller had always managed to sell him some flowers that were not quite fresh, for the flower-seller had spotted in him ‘a large minded and perhaps simple minded Englishman who would never haggle nor look for a breach of good faith…’ As we have seen, Bennett considered himself quite an effective haggler, but there is something in Dorothy Cheston’s story that rings absolutely true.

She was captivated more by wilting flowers than she would have been by fresh ones; she saw in them that he was vulnerable and human, despite his worldly façade and his greater age. The image haunted her: the incident bound them together. It reveals her in all her seriousness of nature. She did not want the public Bennett, she wanted the private one.

Arnold Bennett: A Biography, London: Knopf, 1974

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