The word “Riceyman” rings throughout Riceyman Steps. The name is intimately associated with the family of Henry Earlforward, whose uncle, T. T. Riceyman, bequeathed the bookshop to Henry. The Riceyman Steps—that is, the steps that lead from the hurly-burly of King’s Cross Road up to Riceyman Square—sit directly over the underground railway, which throbs with the passage of trains. These steps make Riceyman square into something of a stage setting, situated in the middle of Clerkenwell, a shabby neighborhood much loved by old Riceyman, who never tired of reciting how the original tunnel near Clerkenwell Green collapsed, in the spring of 1862. The three opening chapters that sketch this history set the stage for the drama that ensues.
Riceyman Steps tells two love stories, one dry and unsatisfying but a love story nevertheless, and the other tender and gratifying. Henry’s marriage to Mrs. Violet Arb soon becomes little more than a struggle between two opposed sensibilities, with Violet yearning for something of the world’s rich experiences as Henry suffocates her with his pathological acquisitiveness. Something clearly human and sexual, however, drives Henry to visit Violet’s shop the first time. Her smile uplifts him, and he becomes “a little bit flurried.” He admires her “fine movement” and his male vanity moves him to conceal his limp.
Things thus begin conventionally, although they do not exactly follow the usual account of a man’s way with a maid (or widow, for that matter). The eccentric wooing that brings two lonely people together is presented with warmth. The two offer much to solace each other through their lives. The abbreviated honeymoon outing foretells what will go wrong. The story is an ancient one: Once the man has preened and courted and won, he drops the pose of the lover and shows his true colors—and Henry’s colors are extremely gray and drab. Violet’s dream of marital happiness dissolves into a waking nightmare. Violet is an attractive character, lively, intelligent, and outgoing, and given half a chance she would make much of her life. She turns instead into the victim of fate, in the tradition of naturalism.
Various symbols help propel the narrative, among them light and fire, the wedding cake, and the safe. Henry cannot abide electric lights burning in his establishment, nor can he allow anyone to burn a candle....
(The entire section is 988 words.)