Riceyman Steps by the British novelist Arnold Bennett was first published in 1923. Less well known than The Old Wives’ Tale or the Clayhanger trilogy, it is a perceptive study of a man, a relationship, and genteel poverty.
Bennett is best known for his novels of the “Five Towns” – the Potteries, since amalgamated to form the city of Stoke-on-Trent, in his native Staffordshire, England. As a young writer he learned his craft by studying French realist novelists, such as Gustave Flaubert and Honoré de Balzac. He also owes a debt to the Irish writer George Moore, a contemporary, who also influenced James Joyce. Bennett’s social criticism was acute, but he was less successful as a playwright. He also wrote self-improvement books such as Literary Taste: How to Form It (1909), How To Live on 24 Hours a Day (1910), Self and Self-Management (1918).
A keen amateur sailor, on a boating trip on the Solent Bennett discovered a chaotic second-hand bookshop called T. James and Co. in Southampton. He would visit it when bad weather prevented sailing and once paid sixpence for Lives and Anecdotes of Misers or the Passion of Avarice Displayed by F. Sommer Merryweather (1850), whose purpose was “to show the evils of that passion – to show how, before its influence, vanish the better spirits of the heart.”
Bennett loved London’s Clerkenwell district, whose unpretentious working class life reminded him of his own origins in the Potteries. For Riceyman Steps he explored the area, reading up on its history and choosing as a location for his novel Granville Place (now Gwynne Place) the steps of which lead up from Kings Cross Road to Granville Square. In 1923 it was dominated by St Philip’s Church (demolished in 1936 and visible in this drawing), whose architecture Bennett describes as, “less laudable than its practical interest in the inculcation among the lowly of the Christian doctrine about the wisdom and propriety of turning the other cheek.”
The story of Riceyman Steps takes place in 1919-20 and deals with the final year in the life of its main character, Henry Earlforward, a miser who keeps a dingy, dust-filled second-hand bookshop. Henry marries Violet Arb, a widow who keeps a neighbouring confectioner’s and who sees in Henry a secure financial future. Henry’s parsimony drives them into increasing wretchedness. Their lives are contrasted with that of their maid-servant Elsie and it is she, despite her extreme poverty, who brings life to this bittersweet tale.
In her biography Arnold Bennett (1974), Margaret Drabble says that, “Riceyman Steps is the finest justification of Bennett’s decision to turn to London for his settings.” J. B. Priestley reviewed the book for the London Mercury and described it as “undoubtedly Mr Bennett’s greatest achievement as a pure craftsman, and… perhaps the best example of his disguised romantic method, of the romance that fights its way through reality when all the gates of easy appeal have been barred.”