Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 18 Aug 2017

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett

I’ve always thought of Arnold Bennett (1867 – 1931) as an moderately interesting but essentially second division novelist; as a chronicler of working class life in The Potteries I always found his books to be worthy but a bit dull. I think I formed this impression not just because of the content of the novels but by the style they are written in – I felt that his very Edwardian version of social realism lacked the vim of Wells or the easy bonhomie of Priestley. And, rather like Galsworthy, Bennett’s reputation took a nose dive in the new circumstances of post- Second World War Britain so that by the time I went to university in the early 1970s he couldn’t even find a place on my English Literature degree syllabus.

In truth I was only drawn to reading Riceyman Steps because it features an antiquarian bookseller as its central protagonist and I’m a complete sucker for anything bookshop related. Admittedly, I started the book in a sceptical frame of mind almost expecting to find myself alienated by it and it did take me thirty or forty pages to get used to the style and the pace of the book – which requires you to not rush – but from that point onwards I was completely bowled over.

Published in 1923, quite late in his career, the book was an immediate success being awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for literature in that same year. Putting aside his past focus on characters drawn from his own background in the North and North Midlands, Riceyman Steps is set exclusively in London and features only native Londoners. In her excellent biography of Bennett, Margaret Drabble says that ‘Riceyman Steps is the finest justification of Bennett’s decision to turn to London for settings’.

The story is an essentially simple one – so simple in fact that it hides a masterful and complex study of the psychology of a miser, Henry Earlforward. Henry has, almost accidently, inherited an antiquarian and second hand bookshop on The Riceyman Steps located close to Kings Cross. He has settled into a shabby existence in a shabby neighbourhood and when we join the story he has two concerns on his mind – how to hang on to his conscientious and vital housemaid, Elsie and how he might win the hand of the local confectionary shop owner, Violet Arb.

Set a year or so after the end of World War One, the action of the book runs over about a year and chronicles the extraordinary downward spiral of Henry and Violet (who are now married) as his miserly character takes an iron grip of the household. Every activity becomes a focus for saving money – lighting, heating and food gets rationed to the bone by Henry and despite Violet’s initial resistance, she too succumbs to the mania.

As they slowly starve themselves to death in pursuit of saving money, the walls of the shop close in around us and our only perspective, the only glimmer of light, comes from Elsie as she struggles to make sense of what is happening. Elsie is a good-hearted, poor but conscientious and dedicated servant who has her own troubles – her sweetheart is deranged by shell-shock and needs to be cared for like a child – but even her level-headed placid nature is tested by the miser and his wife whose parsimony even forces this angelic creature to steal food.  

Ultimately, as they waste away, the extent of their miserliness extends to their own health and well-being. Although both Henry and Violet are clearly ill, he refuses to countenance paying for a doctor or hospital care. Bennett’s portrait of the contradictions of health care before the National Health Service was created is really excellent and one of the very best portraits in the book is the local doctor, Dr Raste, who is torn between his conscience as a doctor and his indifference to the suffering he sees every day.

In the end both Henry and Violet die – that’s not a spoiler, it’s plain from the outset that things will end badly and this is very much a central point of the book. Bennett had spent considerable time researching the psychology and literature of the miser and he clearly wanted to play the story out to what he saw as the natural consequences of this pathological relationship with money.

At the end of the book all traces of Henry, Violet, his shop and his wealth are disbursed and swept away as if they never existed – the suffering of Violet and the mania of Henry was all for nothing, quite literally. The book is saved from darkness by Elsie who, at the end, offers us the chance of redemption through love. She takes back her shell-shocked boyfriend and offers him unconditional love and support as they look to the future.

Feedback from readers at the time indicted that much of the enthusiasm for the book revolved around the admiration readers had for Elsie and this prompted Bennett to write a sequel that featured her and her future life – but this turned out to be a mistake and was a commercial failure.

I found myself being drawn deeper and deeper into this book as the detail of the lives of this small group of people unfolded and by the end I realised that there were whole passages where I’d been holding my breath as I anticipated the physical and moral degradation and decay. As Henry turns into a paper-thin ghost dying at his desk and Violet is torn by abdominal pain, Elsie is reduced to eating raw bacon – it’s not big action but it’s visceral stuff.

A must read.

Terry Potter

August 2017