(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.


(The entire section is 524 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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, he seems surprised, for he had supposed the one she already owns would do. He gets a file, saws off the ring, sells it, and buys another, all without really spending a penny. They are married one morning, and for a honeymoon spend the day in London.

They visit Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks and the Chamber of Horrors. Henry, who had thought the wedding breakfast expensive enough, is distressed at being forced to spend more money. He wonders if he had been deceived, if Violet were not a spendthrift after all. He begins to complain about his lame foot. Violet is dismayed; she wants to see a motion picture. Henry cannot be persuaded to change his mind. He does not, he says, want a painful leg on his wedding day.

When they pass by the shop this same night, Henry thinks the place is on fire. It is glowing with light, and men are working inside. Violet explains that the men had been engaged to clean the dirty, cluttered shop. She had planned the work as her wedding gift to him, but he had spoiled the surprise by coming home before the men had finished their task. Henry shows Violet a safe that he had bought to safeguard her valuables and her money.

Violet soon discovers that miserly Henry will not light a fire, that he will not use electric light, and that he eats practically nothing. On their first morning together, she cooks an egg for him, but he refuses to eat it. Later, Elsie eats it in secret. At another time, Violet has Elsie cook steaks, but...

(The entire section is 1021 words.)