First, a bit of a rant. Nothing to do with the book, but a moan about the declining standards of Amazon's review system. This fine novel is marked down by two reviews complaining about the poor quality of the edition. These clearly do not apply to the House of Stratus edition to which these reviews are supposed to refer. It may have some typos, I haven't really noticed any. Personally, I regard it as an excellent edition, as with the other Stratus Bennetts, of which I have several. In fact, I consider the Stratus as technically superior, for example, to the Penguin Classics editions - largely because of poor quality printing in the latter.
Now, to the book. This award-winning novel from Bennett's later output is, in common with many of his works, profoundly tragic, comic, and - above all - compassionate and understanding all at the same time. The focus of the novel is not the increasingly bizarre bookseller who opens it, nor his soon-to-be-acquired wife, nor even the highly skilfully-developed account of their peculiar marriage. No, the "hero" is Elsie - the "stupid" and "clumsy" maid - only Elsie has the sense and wit to try and avert the inevitable tragedy of the household. Those readers thinking Bennett's characters in this, and earlier tragi-comic novels, are too extreme to be real should remember that Bennett was writing before the advent of social services, the NHS, and so on. When virtually the only control on personal behaviour is peer-group pressure (and how oppressive and ignorant that can be!), it is inevitable that phobias and psychoses could develop more or less unchecked.
Throughout his prodigious output, varying in quality and intent from the sublime literature of "The Old Wives' Tale", "Clayhanger", "These Twain" and, indeed, "Riceyman Steps" to the lightweight "thrillers" like "The Grand Babylon Hotel" and "Teresa of Watling Street", the one constant, apart from the consistently high quality of the writing, is Bennett's humanity - his sheer understanding of human nature and his unerring ability to represent it - regardless of gender, age, or social circumstance.
In common with other recent editions, the Stratus "Riceyman Steps" sensibly includes "Elsie and the Child" - a short story published post-bookseller that tells us a bit more about Elsie and how her life develops. What a lovely character!