John Potter, Chairman of the Arnold Bennett Society, has written this introduction especially for the website: Anna is the first of Arnold Bennett's 'Five Towns' novels. It was started in 1896, two years before the debut of his first published novel A Man from the North in 1898, but did not finally appear until September 1902 after six years of re-writing and polishing and several changes of title. It is therefore an extremely important work, the more so because it began a long series of stories set in his thinly-disguised birthplace - the Potteries - over a period of nearly twenty years. As is frequently the case with an aspiring author, A Man from the North was basically autobiographical in a personal way, but there was little personal, though much of upbringing and living social history, in Anna. A recent discovery indicates that Bennett at 20 went through a short-lived engagement to a young lady with financial expectations, with whose family he went on a holiday to the Isle of Man, but that is the extent of any similarity between fact and fiction. However, the locality and its inhabitants are faithfully portrayed and the Tellwright house was modelled on one of the Bennett family homes.
Anna has been labelled a romance, a tragedy and a book of social significance. It certainly contains elements of all these things, often in a tantalisingly oblique way. After a hundred years there is still argument as to Anna's feelings for the two young men in her life -Willie Price and Henry Mynors, so completely different in background and character. it is the story of a girl brought up in the extraordinary atmosphere created by a dead mother and a miserly father of an extreme sort, and her reactions to the young men, of whom one was forceful and successful and the other a classic example of one of life's failures without a thought of fighting against ill-fortune. The story is played out against a background of pervading Wesleyan doctrines and customs, grasping materialism and blatant hypocrisy, but throughout there runs a steady though sometimes imperceptible trickle of the milk of human kindness. It has an important place in English literature because its author was putting into practice the precepts absorbed from French naturalism and from the Russian preoccupation with total and unremitting tragedy and despair. The result was the rebirth of an English realism inaugurated by Defoe and Richardson. transposed to a low key by Jane Austen, revived by Charlotte Bronte, refined by Mrs Gaskell and Charles Reade, over-elaborated by Charles Dickens and brought to perfection by George Eliot. The Five Towns stories also contain masterly prose descriptions of industrial landscape and the survival of human dignity despite severe social deprivation.
Anna is almost a do-it-yourself book, which each reader can interpret according to personal feeling. Perhaps the main certainty about it is that it stands firmly on a tragic ending leavened by the enigmatic hint of some sort of future hope. Confirmation of this came unwittingly from Bennett himself when he rewrote the story as a play ("Cupid and Commonsense") and ruined it by introducing a happy ending.