Saturday, 27 March 2010

Phyllis Bentley on Tuesday

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Dave Russell from Leeds Met made plenty of assumptions about his substantial audience on Tuesday in Headingley Library - that most of us had read the 'textile district' novels of Phyllis Bentley, for example. Winifred Holtby (she of South Riding) as well. Vera Brittain? Hah, Vera Brittain! Heads nodded: everyone knew Testament of Youth.

There was tension between Bentley and Brittain, Dave Russell explained. Brittain had nice vowels, nice standard sounds, blending in well with the London lot, whereas Bentley was distinctly Halifax, and thought of herself as rather tweedy down there. Strangely enough, Brittain originated from Buxton, which is hardly southern. We saw a fascinating photo of the two of them with a toddling daughter - Shirley Williams, who is now Baroness Williams of Crosby.

Bentley was not just a 'regional novelist' (a fading category) but a novelist who dealt with class issues, and who came with a J B Priestley seal of approval. Her Inheritance (and yes, some of us have read it) was the big thing more than half a century ago, and was made into an impressive Granada TV drama series which was most ambitious for its time, which was 1967. The story of the Oldroyds covered 153 years, from the Luddite machine-breakers of 1812 to Churchill's death in 1965. Very young versions of John Thaw and James Bolam were in it. Many authentic workers' houses were still standing when filming took place, and the muddy killing fields of the Battle of the Somme were recreated just outside Wigan, which was not too difficult.

Bentley was also a significant writer of non-fiction: The Brontës and Their World still reads well today. 

Bentley is due for a revival, it was hinted - a major, if not really great, novelist should not be lost to us. There seemed to be general agreement. Thanks to Dave for his fascinating talk and useful (if sporadic) Powerpoint.

Below, Dave Russell with his LitFest bottle of Aurvin Winery Firebird Legend Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Phyllis Bentley on a cigarette card and Vera Brittain in nurse's gear:

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