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Arnold Bennett: Riceyman Steps

A somewhat sad tale in this, one of Bennett’s last novels. Henry Earlforward’s family built much of the area around Riceyman Steps, a small square, not far from King’s Cross. Almost by accident, Henry has taken over their remaining property, a small second-hand bookshop on the corner. He lives a typically bachelor existence – books in the bath, virtually no fires or use of electric light – aided only by the charwoman, Elsie. Then the confectioner on the other corner is taken over by the widow, Mrs. Arb, and Mr. Earlforward finds himself attracted to her.

Once he starts courting her, it is only a matter of time before they get together, both needing each other. And that’s when the problems start. He is very tight-fisted and she likes her home comforts – heat, light and food being just three of them. Linked in to all of this is the story of Elsie. Elsie had a boyfriend – Joe – who was suffering from shellshock he received during World War I and who is living with and working for near-neighbour Dr Raste. Joe behaves violently towards Elsie and leaves, saying he is going to get cured and will be back in a year. Meanwhile Elsie, who was charwoman for both Mrs. Arb and Mr. Earlforward, has now become their full-time, live-in maid, a luxury Mr. Earlforward begrudges, not least when Elsie starts stealing food.

Elsie soon becomes indispensable, when both Mr. and Mrs. Earlforward start getting ill. Mr. Earlforward refuses to eat and starts to get very thin but refuses to see a doctor. Only when Mrs. Earlforward starts feeling unwell and calls in the doctor, does Mr. Earlforward get any treatment. Elsie is left with the problem of persuading both to go to hospital (she fails with Mr. Earlforward but no matter – Mr. Earlforward dies at home and Mrs. Earlforward in hospital), running the bookshop and dealing with Joe who suddenly turns up but with malaria. Bennett seems supremely indifferent to the death of the couple and rather enjoys Elsie’s triumph.

Publishing history

First published 1923 by Cassell