This is the humorous tale of Edward Henry Machin (his mother "saved a certain amount of time each day by addressing her son as Denry"), set in a small industrial town at the start of the 20th century.
Denry is an impulsive, opportunistic and occasionally lucky entrepreneur, with few morals where business is concerned. He is not especially likeable, but nor is he ludicrously unpleasant and he is an entertaining character to townsfolk as well as readers.
He was raised by his mother, a poor (but proud and hard-working) widow, but obtained a scholarship to grammar school - by cheating, although "he gradually came to believe he had won the scholarship by genuine merit". An encounter with a countess who was "born to poor but picturesque parents" and "brought up to matrimony" provides an opportunity to be noticed and raise his ambitions.
"There were several different men in Denry, but he had the gift of not mixing up two different Denrys when he found himself in a complicated situation." In particular, he develops the habit of turning questions round when asked a tricky situation (Do you
?, Could you
? etc), to generally good effect.
The ways he makes money and climbs the social ladder are many and various and sometimes quite funny, but my favourite chapter was "Raising a Wigwam", even though I guessed what was going on quite early.
There is some nice social detail, "The servant was correctly starched, but unkempt in detail." Also, "The manners and state of a family that has industrially risen combine the spectacular grandeur of the caste to which it has climbed with the ease and freedom of the caste which it has quitted."
Bennett was criticised by some of his contemporaries, especially the Bloomsbury Set, for being old-fashioned and that is true to some extent, which is part of its charm. However, it also has glimpses of modernity that were quite surprising to me, e.g. joking about estate agents overusing terms such as "bijou", some of the features of a high-tech house and the comment that "This was in the days... when automobilists made their wills and took food supplies before setting forth". There is also some careful omission (e.g. when the countess quizzes Denry about something for which he has no excuse, yet he emerges on even better terms than before), which builds dramatic tension.
Overall, a well-written, witty read.