Books Culture

Why Arnold Bennett is my new favourite Bennet(t) – sorry, Elizabeth


Twas the penultimate night of Michaelmas

That corona had made bleak,

When I gifted a friend of mine a book

Of which I shall now speak:

It was called The Assassin’s Cloak and was, according to its by-line, “An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists”. A few weeks ago, my friend got back to me saying that he’d found an entry which summed me up perfectly. It was written by Arnold Bennett in 1927 and read as follows: “Considering I only slept 2 hours last night, I was in astonishingly creative form to-day”. I immediately thought that these were the words of an enlightened genius. Now, I can’t speak for the rest of the contributors to this anthology, but Bennett is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest diarists in my esteem.

There are several things to unpack from this quotation. I, rather notoriously, do not sleep. In fact, I’m convinced that somehow, I’m genetically nocturnal. No matter how much I try and condition myself to fall asleep at a reasonable time, it quite simply does not happen. My brain decides that 2am is the best possible time for working at the speed of light. This ungodly hour is also optimal for existential crises, remembrance of nostalgic and traumatic memories alike, and looping The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles for hours on end. I’m equally certain that a good number of you have been thwarted by the cruellest paradox known to humankind: thinking about how much you want to go to sleep and therefore staying awake.

In light of the pandemic, this quotation seems much more relevant to me now than it may have done before. Studies have shown that in the UK, as a result of the first lockdown, or the OG national lockdown™ if you will, there was a sharp increase of insomnia due to worry-related sleep. These augmented numbers were the consequences of the struggling economy, qualms about money, furloughing and parents stressed by at-home learning. It would seem I was not the only one staying up until 5am pondering the purpose of my insignificant existence. Bearing all this in mind, Bennett’s words made me retrospectively look on the past year and realise how much I had achieved; anything and everything that I managed to do was, in fact, me surviving and thriving.

This sentence’s parallel with the events of today’s world seemed that much more poignant because it was written in the 1920s. Granted, it’s not quite as satisfying as it would have been had Bennett wrote this exactly a century ago, but the fact that the 20s was a cursed decade for fellow insomniacs throughout history is an added bonus. But Arnold Bennett was a successful novelist, playwright and journalist. How could I ever match him creatively? Well, here are a few creative things I’ve done on 2-ish hours of sleep:

  • binged Buffy the Vampire Slayer, series 4
  • embroidered an M&S canvas bag
  • wrote many poems (of varying quality)
  • attempted to write an essay on Proust
  • listened to the Folklore and Evermore albums on the sofa
  • failed to knit
  • attempted to write many novels

Now, I’m not saying I’m the next Arnold Bennett, but this doesn’t seem like a half-bad list of creative things. Either that or I’m a master of procrastination. Therefore, I plan to live my life by the words “considering I only slept 2 hours last night, I was in astonishingly creative form to-day”. And I can’t wait to see what comes of it. After all, Bennett shares his name with many other wise and wonderful Bennetts (double t’s notwithstanding): Tony Bennett, Alan Bennett, and my personal lifestyle guru, Elizabeth Bennet.

So, every time I wake up on two hours’ sleep knowing full well that I need to write a brilliantly nuanced essay for a deadline in four hours’ time, I repeat Arnold’s wise words to myself as a mantra. I only slept 2 hours last night, I will be in astonishingly creative form to-day. I will be astonishingly creative. And indeed, my literature essays are astonishingly creative. Whether or not they are remotely correct is something else entirely.

Sophie Benbelaid

When she's not drowning in the workload from her French and Russian degree, Sophie enjoys reading, yoga, ballet and writing. You can usually find her staying up all night in the throes of an existential crisis or in your nearest bookshop.