What makes a great novel? Surely it is something about how we engage with human nature - both our own and others'. I have never read a book like Riceyman Steps - and having been an avid reader since childhood I have read *many* books. No other novel has ever made me so emotionally engaged with the characters. I found myself literally talking out loud to the characters, trying to persuade them to change their ways; in fact, at times I was actually shouting at them. As a therapist, I know that this is not because I have 'issues' around the subject matter. Rather, it is a testament to Bennett's skill that he drew me in to this world that starts off ordinary, promises happiness, but becomes increasingly dark and distressing.
Bennett at his best is a great writer. What I appreciate is that he keeps things rooted in the ordinary. His characters are just people - like you and me and the people next door. His style is simple (in the same way, I feel, as Guy de Maupassant) and I have always thought them surprisingly modern in style. Many books from this period (late 19th - early 20th century) can feel rather turgid in their style - you have to really *want* to read them. This is not the case with Bennett, perhaps because he writes from the perspective of an ordinary person rather than striving for 'literary style'.
Some people will know Bennett from the TV series 'Clayhanger' in the 1970s, since when he seems to have been forgotten. It is high time people rediscovered him.
One of the best books ever? I don't know. All I can say is that of the thousands of books I have read few have moved me like this one.
on 10 February 2011
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!
Bennett is master of the study of miniscule, and this is no exception. An intense, shocking study of a year in the lives of Mr Earlsforward, a bookseller in Clerkenwell, and the women he marries in middle age, Mrs Arb, and their devoted charwoman, Elsie. Earlsforward is obsessively economical in life - with money, with words, with affection and certainly with commen sense. And his obsessions have a profound, shocking, and ultimately fatal, impact on those over whom he is master, sometimes - his wife and his "general". If you like Bennett, you'll love this. If you havn't read Bennett before, then this is the perfect introduction.
Utterly engrossing tale of bookseller Mr Earlforward, who becomes taken with neighbouring shopkeeper Mrs Arb when he sees how prudent she is with money (she refuses to pay the full shilling for one of his books.) For the bookseller's grand passion in life is saving money in every possible way.
I loved the description of Mrs Arb having a nose round her suitor's shabby home prior to the wedding:
'Coming out of the bedroom, she perceived between it and the stairs a long, narrow room. Impossible to enter this room because of books; but Mrs Arb did the impossible, and after some excavation with her foot disclosed a bath, which was full to the brim and overflowing with books.'
Also of the frugal existence they come to share together:
'Husband and wife, he in his overcoat and she in her mantle, took their places at the glass-covered table in the fireless room; and the teapot was there and the bread and margarine was there...The blinds were drawn, the curtains were drawn; electric current was burning, if not the gas fire; despite the blackness of the hearth the room had an air, or half an air, of domestic cosiness. Violet poured out the tea, an operation simplified by the total absence of sugar.'
Sharing the couple's life is Elsie, the 'general' who previously worked as a cleaner for each of them. There are issues with Elsie eating too much; and Elsie is pining for her young man who is disturbed from shell shock...
I can't recommend this work enough. It's set in a very small environment, yet Bennett's brilliant understanding of human behaviour makes it utterly enthralling.
on 4 August 2012
Joseph Conrad stayed up all night to read this novel. It grips you with the minutiae of life in 1920s Kings Cross. The book's horrors creep up on you from underneath the veneer of routine, and only occasionally the veneer is swept away, and you are shown Mr and Mrs Earlforward through the eyes of one who suddenly come upon them - the appalled eyes of the doctor.
This was Arnold Bennett's most popular novel - late in his career - the one that sold the best. He complained that Elsie the servant girl heroine had stolen the scene:"I am suddenly the darling of the public - not because of the excellence of Riceyman Steps, but because the heroine thereof is a sympathetic, good, reliable, unselfish and chaste character. She is a domestique and all London, and all New York is wishing that it could find devoted servants like her. `Psychologie des foules'!
Those responsible for the Penguin introduction argue that this is really a modernist novel, presenting the stream of life as it is lived. As Bennett says `A man crosses a road to marry a woman'. He shows rather than tells his characters, presenting their inner lives from their perspectives - even if Virginia Woolf disagreed and thought Bennett was simply `looking out of the window'. It is really a symbolist novel too - where the collapse of the underground system when being built, mirrors the collapse of Mrs Earlforward's inner gynaecological workings, and the cancer that eats away at Mr Earlforward's oesophagus.
It develops Bennett's early interest in misers - see one of the key characters in Old Wives' Tale - but goes further now he has learned more about the unconscious and neurosis. Here, miserliness and gold gathering are a subversion of sexual desire, described by Bennett as:`the grand passion which had rendered all [Mr Earlforward's] career magnificent, and every hour of all his days interesting and beautiful.'
Husband's and wife's hoarding and self starvation are directly contrasted by Elsie's longing for life - and as Mr and Mrs Earlforward fade away, Elsie yearns for the return of her Joe, and in the mean time finds herself strangely drawn to eating the left-over stewed mutton.
As the story develops, we do look out of the window too - and a very interesting window it is - as Bennett describes with a confident eye the minutiae of life in the back end of Kings Cross, the life of a harried 1920s doctor with public and private patients, fund-raising for the local hospital, the stresses of life in multiply-occupied houses in a run-down town square, Communist meetings, fights, the effects of shell shock on Joe, how Joe gets arrested for assaulting a policeman, the visit of a surprisingly fun-loving successful headmistress of a girls' school, vacuum cleaning, a visit to Madame Tussaud's, and the dimly-lit dusty detail of the bookshop itself around which all the drama turns.
on 18 August 2001
I think this is the finest of Bennett's books that isn't set in the Five Towns. It's set in the Clerkenwell area of London. Mr Earlforward is an antiquarian bookseller with a shop in Riceyman Steps and is a miser. The extent of his miserliness shocks you as you read because of Bennett's accurate portrayal of such obsessiveness and its effect upon the lives of two women, his obliging, self-sacrificing charwoman Elsie and the widowed shopkeeper Mrs Arb who he marries in middle age largely because of her seemingly economical nature. The honeymoon consists of a bus ride to visit Madame Tussauds. His new wife's vacuuming of the house and shop to clear decades of accumulated dust is to him an act of betrayal as if the dust that's drawn up is part of his wealth.. This seemingly drab story is in fact very absorbing because Bennett engages us in the interestingness of human nature, its quirks and oddities, and with his careful observation of working-class life in the locality. In one of the chapters there's a marvellous description of the problems of living in an over-crowded house in a slum where 'the adult inhabitants were always unhappy save when drinking alcohol or making love..'. The novel isn't depressing. It's amazing.
on 31 January 2015
I have just discovered Arnold Bennett. I read Old Wives Tales recently and started on this. He paints very clear pictures in your mind of the characters he writes about. In this case two penny pinching misers and their help,Elsie, who doesnt have two pennies to rub together but you can guess who has the most happiness. Moralistc without preaching. Money doesn't buy happiness.
on 13 January 2013
This wasn,t just a good book it was brilliant I couldnt put it down, Arnold Bennett wrote this with real insight to the lives of his characters, I love the sardonic humour always subtle,The three main characters came ove so strongly with Elsie probably the most endearing. This has got to be one of the best books I have ever read, and I have read hundreds!
on 25 June 2012
I'm a big Arnold Bennett fan, and this book is among his best, along with the Clayhanger series and the Old Wives Tale. He's very underrated and not well known as a writer which is a shame because his writing is very readable, and also very significant if you come from the Potteries. Everyone should try him.
on 30 August 2013
Don't be put off by the fact that this a story about a middle-aged second-hand book-seller. His life and experiences are uniquely beautiful even when they appear to be repellent. We think we know what we like in books but this one expands the boundaries of our appreciation and we end up looking at our reading experience in a new way. Go on, read it and see for youwself! By the way, in 1923 Bennett won a James Tait Black Memorial Prize for this book. No, I never heard of this prize either, but so says my introduction to this Kindle edition!