Places: Riceyman Steps

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1923

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1919

Places DiscussedRiceyman Steps

Riceyman Riceyman StepsSteps. Public staircase leading from London’s Kings Cross Road to Riceyman Square, directly over the Underground Railway, which throbs with the passage of trains, in the middle of Clerkenwell, a shabby neighborhood. Adjacent to the steps is a small open space, lined with a mixture of private housing, two business yards, a confectioner’s shop, an abandoned mission hall, and a bookseller’s. Clerkenwell is a real London neighborhood; the Riceyman Steps are fictional but based on a genuine location, known to English children as Plum Pudding Steps and to adults as Gwynne Place, formerly Granville Place. Arnold Bennett, although best known for his novels about England’s Potteries region, thoroughly explored the Clerkenwell area of London. He was attracted by the area’s Victorian domestic architecture, which remained beautiful even under the soot from coal smoke and untidiness that then blighted the district. The novel places great emphasis on the decaying nature of the area: a “hell of noise and dust and dirt.”

The neighborhood is much loved by old T. T. Riceyman, who never tires 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’s bookshop

Riceyman’s bookshop. Business currently owned by Henry Earlforward, whose uncle is the Riceyman of the title. The shop is small, with its entrance on Riceyman Steps and a window overlooking King’s Cross Road. Although seemingly out of place in a neighborhood characterized as sordid and dingy, the shop does well because both it and Riceyman Steps are picturesque, despite the shabbiness and decay.

Full of bays formed by protruding bookshelves, the shop becomes progressively more gloomy the farther into it one ventures. Its floor is covered with piles of books, everything is dusty, and many electric lights do not work. At the very back of the shop is Earlforward’s den, also littered with books and dust and poorly lit–especially since its broken window blinds cannot be raised. The miserly Earlforward is obliged to use electric lighting but prefers candles.

When Mrs. Arb marries Earlforward, her wedding gift to him is to have his entire bookshop cleaned by an industrial vacuum-cleaning system to remove the dust. The idea appalls Earlforward–as much for its cost as for what the cleaning will do to his shop–and he strenuously resists his new wife’s attempts to tidy his books. However, his wife eventually manages to move some of the books out of his bedroom and bathroom but cannot make the house cleaner or introduce such improvements as proper cooking facilities, electric lighting, and lamp shades. However, she does grow flowers on the front windowsills.

Mrs. Arb’s shop

Mrs. Arb’s shop. Small shop on King’s Cross Road. Its stock comprises “universally recognizable packets” and many other goods, all cluttered together. Although Mrs. Arb is well-spoken and clearly better off than many, her shop is dirty and unwelcoming. Bennett describes it as a poor little shop, with no sense of enterprise or imagination. Indeed, although Mrs. Arb has only recently bought the shop, she is determined to sell it. After she marries Earlforward, she sells her shop to the Belroses, who turn it into a going concern.

Elsie’s home

Elsie’s home. Home of the woman who does cleaning work for both Earlforward and Mrs. Arb who later becomes their live-in servant, with a small room of her own. Initially, however, she is living with a family with two children, with whom she shares three rooms. On the ground floor lives a meat salesman, his wife, and three children. On the second floor lives a dressmaker on her own. All the frustrations of the building’s households are focused on the narrow and crowded ground-floor hall of the house, which itself is in a poor state of repair.

BibliographyBroomfield, Olga R. R. Arnold Bennett. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A good overview of the life and works, a reliable bibliography of Bennett’s publications, and a judicious selection and annotation of secondary sources. An excellent starting place.Drabble, Margaret. Arnold Bennett. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Admires Bennett’s work in general and praises Riceyman Steps for its use of London setting. Identifies F. Sommer Merryweather’s Lives and Anecdotes of Misers (1850) as an important source for Riceyman Steps.Hepburn, James G. The Art of Arnold Bennett. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963. Close analysis of Bennett’s technique, symbols, images, and allegories. Praises Riceyman Steps as a “complex study of love and death.”Lucas, John. Arnold Bennett: A Study of His Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1974. Admires Bennett’s development of character in Riceyman Steps and his symbolism. Speculates on the possible psychosomatic origins of Henry Earlforward’s cancer. One of the best analyses of the novel.Woolf, Virginia. Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. London: The Hogarth Press, 1924. A notorious attack on Bennett and his style by the most famous of the Bloomsbury group. Argues that Bennett relies too much on external facts and physical descriptions in trying to create characters.
Categories: Places