Reading this book introduced me to an interesting new word: card. Mind you, that’s not a card as in a birthday card or a playing card. In this context, the term card refers to someone who will do anything to remain popular in the public’s eye (as Wikipedia defines it: a “character”, someone able to set tongues wagging). A card does not act like the quintessential spoiled Hollywood brat; he is more of a lighthearted fun-loving type of person. A card tends to be engaging, impulsive, and brash; a card might even be extravagant and ostentatious. I suspect that this definition has been depreciated as the world has become smaller and it became more difficult to achieve the same effect in the eyes of a local community.
In the case of this clever tale, our card is Edward Henry Machin better known as Denry Machin. The locale in which he became the card is known as The Five Towns (possibly based on the six town district in which Bennett grew up). As you will see, a card is a card by birth as well as by choice.
Denry’s first demonstration of being a card occurred by chance when he was sixteen. He was clerking for Mr. Duncalf when the Countess of Chell arrived seeking Mr. Duncalf’s services. She desired that Mr. Duncalf assist with inviting certain of the town folk to a ball and to assist with the distribution of the invitations. As Mr. Duncalf was absent, Denry spoke with the Countess instead. Since it soon became his job to compile the various lists of invitees to the ball, he added his name to the list. But, of course, that wasn’t enough. Denry was poor, couldn’t dance, and didn’t own a nice suit let alone attire suitable for a ball. So, he did the the only thing a reasonable young man could be expected to do: he traded an invitation to the ball for dance lessons with Miss. Ruth Earp and exchanged a second invitation for a dress suit from Shillitoe the tailor.
Once at the dance, Denry was bet that he wouldn’t ask the Countess for the first dance. Denry impulsively accepted; oops. Then, Denry entertained the Countess to the consternation of onlookers.
This chance bet became the seed money for his rise as a Card. In the earlier chapters of the book, Denry frequently made business decisions on the spot without much thought (decisions that appeared foolish to everyone – including himself). Yet, these decisions usually worked out in his favor; it would seem that Denry had an innate sense of risk and could intuitively pick out the best choice. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view), Denry couldn’t prevent himself from opening his mouth nor could he back away from these risky decisions after he announced them to the public. These successful and occasionally philanthropic risks, made him extremely well known in the five towns as he capitalized on various opportunities to amass a small fortune for himself. Eventually, Denry learned to plot these decisions and to maximize the profitability of each decision.
Through this enchanting tale of Denry’s rise to cardom (can I make up that word?), Arnold Bennett creates a unique and delightful experience. I must say that this was a story that I enjoyed immensely. I was saddened to discover that it only covered about sixteen years or so of Denry’s life (though there is a sequel). We leave him just as he became the most important man in the Five Towns.
You have to read or listen to this story. You can buy it here. There wasn’t anything that I saw as objectionable other than the winking at Denry’s occasional duplicity since the “ends justified the means.”