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Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett

Riceyman Steps (1923)

by Arnold Bennett

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    New Grub Street by George Gissing (peterbrown)
    peterbrown: Although published 32 years before 'Riceyman Steps' Gissing also looks at life in central and North London (Islington) and is concerned with the world of books, publishing, as well as class and poverty, and the ever present threat of hunger.

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Bennett's attempt 'to invent a form to supersede Balzac'
By sally tarbox on 4 Jan. 2013
Format: Paperback
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. ( )
1 vote starbox | Jul 10, 2016 |
At the heart of the novel are three characters: Mr. Earlforward and Mrs. Arb and Elsie (who does for the former in the mornings, in the building which also houses the bookshop, and does for the latter in the afternoons, across the way in the building which also houses the confectioner's shop). The relationships between these three (fellow shop-keepers and employer-employee) quickly grow more complicated and intimacies develop.

Not always comfortable intimacies, sometimes the irritating and constraining types, although as one of them observes, that's a matter of how you choose to look at things. "This was the end of the honeymoon; or, if you prefer it, their life was one long honeymoon." As this statement suggests, times are changing, not only at the personal level, but in a broader sense; Riceyman Steps was once a thriving community but those days are long gone and, seemingly, unlikely to return. The business model that Mr. Earlforward follows is static and the bookstore's popularity wanes, although a certain bookishness remains.

It is a novel about relationships (business, community, marital) characterized by pride, fear, and loneliness. In many ways, it is a sad story (in the way that some of Barbara Pym's stories are sad), but that, too, could be said to be all about a reader's perspective. Another reader might see this as a story about "[s]imple souls, somehow living very near the roots of happiness -- though precariously."

( )
1 vote buriedinprint | Apr 8, 2013 |
(btw, don't buy this book; download it!)

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett. The novel, Riceyman Steps, though nowhere as successful as his best work Old Wives Tale, nonetheless deserves plaudits for ambition and its tight focus on three expertly-drawn characters. The sentences are beautiful and give profound insights into characters, but lack of incident and forward action leave us with little desire to proceed. Characters don’t really make choices to change their fate; instead, they live on and on, with the occasional traumatic episode thrown in for good measure. The best thing about the work is how it avoids stereotypes about character types; for example, a miser may have real qualms about spending money, but can be persuaded in the right context to spend lavishly (though later he will resent doing so). I had trouble with the ending (which I’ll spell out only obliquely, although there isn’t much suspense); first, why did the novel give so much prominence to Joe (the housekeeper’s boyfriend) near the ending? It seemed out of place. Second, the death doesn’t really have any meaning except to confirm the narrator’s view that people ultimately get what they deserve. Okay, fine, but did the characters really choose their fates (or were they merely burdened by their ill habits?) Bennett doesn’t really present any alternatives; are any people in his world capable of living salutary lifestyles? That, I think, is a flaw of the novel; it fails to give us a glimpse into people who are avoiding the pitfalls of the protagonists. Conspicuously absent are children in this novel; there are literally no opportunities in this novel for the characters to display generosity or affection towards the outside world. How much of this penury is simply a result of the couple’s being childless? Bennett seems convinced that these people are not particularly sinister and even deserving of sympathy; still, the book’s ultimate purpose is moralistic; it exhort us to examine our hearts to see if we possess the same myopic shortcomings. ( )
2 vote rjnagle | May 29, 2007 |
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On an autumn afternoon of 1919 a hatless man with a slight limp might have been observed ascending the gentle, broad acclivity of Riceyman Steps, which lead from King's Cross Road up to Riceyman Square, in the great metropolitan industrial district of Clerkenwell.
`My dear, you're ruining my business ... You don't understand how much of it depends on me having lots of books lying about as if they weren't anything at all. That's just what book-collectors like. If everything was ship-shape they wouldn't look twice at the place. Whenever they see a pile of books in the dark they think there must be bargains.'
He dreamed that one day he would share with her his own vision of the wonderful Clerkenwell in which he lived. He would explain that once Clerkenwell was a murmuring green land of medicinal springs, wells, streams with mills on their banks, nunneries, aristocrats, and holy clerks who presented mystery-plays. ... And he would point out how the brown backs of the houses which fronted on King's Cross Road resembled the buttressed walls of a mighty fortress, and how the grim, ochreish, unwindowed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0755116003, Paperback)

Henry Earlforward is a miserly bookseller who marries a customer and neighbour, Violet Arb. Their life together becomes impossible because of Henry's parsimonious nature and her desire to spend on what he views as luxuries, even extending to heating and the food that is served at table. Both fall ill, but only Violet enters hospital as Henry fears for his autonomy. Violet dies, but meanwhile the maid, Elsie, has been stealing money from Henry to ensure the household carries on and also to use in making enquiries about Violet. Leaving his sickbed, Henry discovers the theft. However, his body is then discovered. Violet and her lover Joe end up working for Dr Raste, who both attended and became exasperated with the Earlforwards.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:40 -0400)

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