Bentley, Phyllis (1894–1977)

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Bentley, Phyllis (1894–1977)

English author who wrote regional novels of life in West Riding. Born Phyllis Eleanor Bentley in Halifax, Yorkshire, England, on November 19, 1894; died in Halifax in June 1977; daughter of Eleanor (Kettlewell) Bentley and Joseph Edwin Bentley (a cloth manufacturer); educated at Cheltenham Ladies' College, B.A., 1914; never married; no children.

Selected works:

(self-published) The World's Bane (1918); Environment (1922); The Infamous Bertha (1922); The Spinner of the Years (1928); The Partnership (1928); Trio (1930); Inheritance (1932); A Modern Tragedy (1934); Sleep in Peace (1938); Take Courage (1940); Manhold (1941); Rise of Henry Morcar (1947); Some Observations on the Art of Narrative (1947); Life Story (1948); Quorum (1951); "O Dreams, O Destinations": An Autobiography (1962); Tales of West Riding (1974).

In the West Riding region of England, textile manufacturing was prosperous, popular work, and Joseph Edwin Bentley supported his four children, first as a junior partner, later as an owner, of a mill. The Bentley family was, according to its only daughter Phyllis, "Essentially proper, essentially respectable, essentially middle class." By the time Bentley was four, her ten-year-old brother Frank had taught her to read, spell, count, and tell time. A sickly child, highly susceptible to infections, she attended small private schools in Huddersfield and Halifax when she was well.

At Halifax High School for Girls, where Bentley was "plain and unpopular, a coward and not good at games," she met Barbara Clark (Callow) . As they became friends, Callow inspired in Bentley a confidence her family had not and "turned me back," wrote Bentley, "from the neurotic abyss to which I was tending." In 1910, at age 15, Bentley entered Cheltenham Ladies' College, graduating in December 1914.

Thinking it would allow her time to write, Bentley took a high school teaching job, but her students drove her to abandon the idea within her first semester, and she returned to her parents' home to write full time. In 1918, during World War I, she landed a job at the Ministry of Munitions. That same year, a book of short stories was accepted for publication on the condition that Bentley cover the printing costs. Her brother Norman paid for 750 copies. But Bentley's independence lasted only as long as the war. "Suddenly it became the duty of all women to clear out … and leave the jobs open for the returning men."

Back in Halifax, she wrote and did volunteer work for three years until she became a cataloguer. At the Library of Halifax, the Municipal Library in Sowerby Bridge, and at the large Bradford Library and Literary Society, Bentley instituted the Dewey Decimal system and catalogued almost 80,000 books. "I loved this work," she wrote, "and the classifying of so many diverse books, which necessitates a slight knowledge of them all, or at least an understanding of their subject, was I think very profitable for me." All the while, she wrote and submitted her second manuscript, Environment, for publication. When the manuscript was rejected, Bentley was discouraged. "What are you writing?" her mother had once asked. "Rubbish? You couldn't write a [good] book … to save your life." Bentley persisted. In 1922, Environment and The Infamous Bertha were published to modest sales.

Despite her early failure as a teacher, Bentley began to lecture effectively on the regional novel, an area in which she was considered a new talent. But she remained the child in her parents' home until Joseph Bentley died in 1926, and Bentley took over the household. Regular earnings brought in by novels and book reviews sustained Bentley and her mother through the Depression, and the family business, nearly ruined by the 1929 stock-market crash, was also buoyed by her financial support. When her greatest success, Inheritance, was published in 1932, Bentley's reputation as a West Riding novelist was made secure. Inheritance would see 29 editions.

Success, especially in the United States, gave Bentley a certain comfort. America "unkinked many of my complexes," she wrote. "I became quite a conversationalist, laughing and talking, no longer huddled in the corner but expanding in the center of the room…. Inferiority complexes unmottled themselves at record speed." During World War II, again wishing to contribute to Britain's efforts, she worked for the Ministry of Information, beginning in March 1942. The most rewarding part of her service was the two years living in London alone and the surprising pleasure of returning to Halifax. "It is lovely to be home again. Yorkshire is life, even in the rain. … My material is here and I belong to the West Riding." Then she added, "But of course as a person I am miserable." Once again, she had returned to her mother's home; once again, her independent life had ceased. Portraits of her parents, "though not their circumstances," wrote Bentley, may be found in her novel Carr (1929).

Barbara Clark Callow, an accomplished scientist and author, remained a close friend and correspondent, and her daughter Sylvia, born in 1927, was Bentley's godchild. When Bentley could, she visited Callow, though Callow did not venture to Halifax because Bentley's mother held her in disdain. Callow, who went increasingly deaf until she was found to have an inoperable brain tumor, died on September 10, 1948. Six months later, Bentley's mother died. Having been her mother's primary companion and caretaker, Bentley had given up regular writing.

The years after were a "period of great personal happiness" for Bentley: she wrote, lectured widely, and expanded her friendships to include author Joan Ingilby and illustrator Marie Hartley . Bentley continued to reap renown for her regional works, though she was never sure of her talent. "I wished simply to write a great novel giving a superb picture of life as it really is," she wrote in her 1962 autobiography. "That I did not succeed is obvious. I was not endowed with the necessary genius." She remained in her Halifax childhood home until her death.

suggested reading:

Bentley, Phyllis. "O Dreams, O Destinations": An Autobiography. London: Victor Gollancz, 1963.

Crista Martin , freelance writer, Boston, Massachusetts

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