Arnold Bennett, Riceyman Steps
Grosset & Dunlap (1923)

My experience with Arnold Bennett’s fiction can be easily summed up: The Old Wives’ Tale (1908).

But what I lack in experience, I make up for in enthusiasm: I loved that novel. I was expecting it to be old-fashioned, dreary and a bit of a slog.

Instead I raced through it faster than some of the contemporary fiction that I was reading at the time.

And, so, Riceyman Steps. Because of the Bennett-ness of it. But also because of its bookishness.

And that’s why it’s also the final installment in my Bookish Fridays focus. (Next Friday I’ll still be Buried In Print, but I won’t be talking about bookish books on Fridays, just books — which, yes, is still somewhat bookish, of course.)

But, honestly, best not to go to Riceyman Steps for bookishness. It is less a novel about a bookstore and more of a novel about a man who owns a bookstore. If, however, you loved The Old Wives’ Tale, this is every bit as engrossing, and there is an occasional bookish moment as a bonus.

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.

From the outside, here is what you might see of the shop in Riceyman Steps:
“The King’s Cross Road window held only cheap editions, in their paper jackets, of popular modern novels, such as those of Ethel M. Dell, Charles Garvice, Zane Grey, Florence Barclay, Nat Gould, and Gene Stratton Porter. The side-window was set out with old books, first editions, illustrated editions, and, complete library editions in calf or morocco of renowned and serious writers, whose works, indispensable to the collections of self-respecting book-gentlemen (as distinguished from bookmen), have passed through decades of criticism into the impregnable paradise of eternal esteem.”

And, from the inside, in the shop itself:
“The bookshelves went up to the ceiling on every side. The floor was thickly strewn with books, the table also. Chairs also. The blind lay crumpled on the book-covered window-sill.”

And in the private room within the shop (can’t you just picture that room from “84 Charing Cross Road”?): “There were more books to the cubic foot in the private room even than in the shop. They rose in tiers to the ceiling and they lay in mounds on the floor; they also covered most of the flat desk and all the window-sill; some were perched on the silent grandfather’s clock, the sole piece of furniture except the desk, a safe, and two chairs, and a step-ladder for reaching the higher shelves.”

And in the private living quarters which customers cannot see, but which Mrs. Arb convinces Elsie to allow her to inspect:
“Mrs. Arb had to step over hummocks of books in order to reach the foot of the stairs. The left-hand half of every step of the stairs was stacked with books — cheap editions of novels in paper jackets, under titles such as ‘Just a Girl’, ‘Not Like Other Girls’, ‘A Girl Alone’. Weak but righteous and victorious girls crowded the stairs from top to bottom, so that Mrs. Arb could scarcely get up. The landing also was full of girls.”

But these are the only girls in Mr. Earlforward’s living quarters as he’s a longtime bachelor, also evidenced in this passage from Mrs. Arb’s exploration:
“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 fulll to the brim and overflowing with books. Now Mrs. Arb was pretty well accustomed to baths; she was not aware of the extreme rarity of baths in Clerkenwell, and hence she could not appreciate the heroism of a hero who, possessing such a treasure, had subdued it to the uses of mere business.”

Here is one more bookish quote that will likely appeal to fans of Persephone Books:
“The word ‘snacks’ gave Mr. Earlforward an idea. He walked across to what he called the ‘modern side’ of the shop. In the course of the war, when food-rationed stay-at-homes really had to stay at home, and, having nothing else to do while waiting for air-raids, took to literature in desperation, he had done a very large trade in cheap editions of novels, and quite a good trade in cheap cookery books that professed to teach rationed housewives how to make substance out of shadow. Gently rubbing his little beard, he stood and gazed rather absently at a shelf of small paper-protected volumes, while Elsie waited with submission.”

But although the story largely unfolds in the bookshop, 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.”

Have you read this one, or another Arnold Bennett novel?