Riceyman Steps Summary
Riceyman Steps is a bleak novel about a miser. It is a tribute to Bennett’s art that the novel is both enjoyable and moving. There is something about knowing a character so well that there is no human fault that cannot be sympathetically understood, if not condoned. So it is with Henry Earlforward, a neat, mild, and fastidious man. When he marries Elsie Sprickett, an equally fastidious and shrewd shop owner, he defeats her efforts to behave more generously and to spend more on life, and though she rails at him, she loves him, softening to his tender voice and his obvious devotion to her.
Bennett contrives a plot and a setting that mercilessly bear down upon the characters yet give them full play to express their individuality. They are not merely the victims of circumstances, but they are also not quite strong enough to alter their lifelong habits and prejudices. There is no area of life, for example, that Henry does not submit to his austere notions of economy. When Elsie attempts to surprise him by having his shop and home cleaned on their honeymoon day (they have agreed it is to be only one day), he insists on cutting the honeymoon short, not wanting to spend more money on what he sees as the extravagance of dinner and a motion-picture show. When they return home and he discovers the vacuum cleaners, he interviews one of the workers, asking him what they do with the dirt. Does it have a market value? Henry wants to know.
Henry denies himself and his wife food, trying to live without heat and light in his home as he does in his business. His mind measures virtually every act by what it costs, so that eventually he turns his own body into an emaciated version of his parsimonious temperament. Where he lives, Riceyman Steps, is but the external manifestation of Henry’s reluctance to live a full, expended life. It is a neglected part of London that has not kept pace with the present and has little to recommend itself in the way of culture. Having inherited the book business from a relative, T. T. Riceyman, Henry becomes known by the place he inhabits: He is Riceyman, the human representation of the square, and the twenty Riceyman steps that mark the limit of his enterprise.
Neglecting himself and his wife, Henry does not see the signs of their physical deterioration. He will not spend money on a doctor, attributing his increasing pain to indigestion and his wife’s ill health to needless worry when in fact he is suffering from cancer and she will eventually die following an operation.
Riceyman Steps is perhaps Bennett’s final word on the extremity of a certain kind of provincial mind that so starves itself that it cannot recognize the approaching death of the mind and the body. Yet Henry, like so many of Bennett’s provincial characters, is likable, for he has an inner harmony, a fullness within the context of his own limitations, such as his full, almost sensual lips—a surprising feature in such a deprived figure.
Henry Earlforward owns a bookstore left to him by his uncle, T. T. Riceyman. It is cluttered, dusty, and badly lit. Earlforward lives in a back room of the shop; the upstairs of the building is filled with old books. Elsie, his cleaning woman, comes into the shop one night. She tells Henry that she also works for Mrs. Violet Arb, who owns the confectioner’s shop next door, and that Mrs. Arb has sent her for a cookbook. Henry finds one containing recipes for making substantial meals out of practically no food at all. A little later, Elsie returns and says that Mrs. Arb thanks him, but the book is too expensive.
Henry’s curiosity is aroused, and he goes to Mrs. Arb’s shop. Even though he marks down the price of the book, Mrs. Arb still refuses to buy it. Henry becomes more interested, for it is clear that Mrs. Arb is no spendthrift. The following Sunday, they go for a walk, and from then on, they are close friends. Violet soon sells her shop and agrees to marry Henry. When Violet asks him about a wedding ring,...
(The entire section is 1,545 words.)