Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett was one of the books that I read on my Kindle while I was on the Baltic cruise. I actually ran out of ‘real’ books to read on board, that’s because I found it quite boring, cruises are fine if you are keen on stuffing your face a lot, otherwise there isn’t much else to do but read, unless you’re interested in boozing or gambling!
Anyway, back to the book. Riceyman Steps was first published in 1923 and it won the James Tait Memorial Prize that year, which is one of the reasons that I decided to read it as I’m hoping to read as many as those prize winners as I can get my hands on. It is set in London’s Clerkenwell, mainly in a bookshop and attached flat which has been inherited by Henry Earlforward from his uncle. One window looks into The King’s Cross Road and the other onto Riceyman Steps. Henry had had to learn the book business quickly and despite the shop being really dirty and dingy he had a good number of loyal customers for the antiquarian books in stock. Books are piled everywhere, as is dust and as Henry is a terrible miser he only has one electric light, the rest of the building is lit by candles.
There’s a confectioner’s across the road, inherited by Violet who is a widow, and Henry has taken a shine to her. It isn’t really romance he’s after though it’s more the fact that she has a business and he thinks that maybe Violet would take over the cleaning in the shop. That’s a bit optimistic considering they both already share the same young cleaning woman/maidservant in the shape of Elsie. She has trouble with her young man who is a survivor of World War 1 but he suffers from shell shock, which causes huge problems within their relationship. Henry’s chief joy is to spend half an hour picking his teeth with toothpicks after a meal, not that he would ever go to the expense of buying toothpicks. His only other joy is to fashion spent matchsticks into toothpicks – waste not want not!
Violet isn’t really cut out for being a confectioner and when she decides to sell her shop she also decides to marry Henry, after all – he has good living accommodation. But they really know nothing about each other. When Violet decides to employ a firm of cleaners – complete with new-fangled vacuum cleaners to clean the interior of the building as a wedding present to Henry he is absolutely aghast. She had spent £14 on the firm of cleaners and of course everything had been moved. Henry thinks his customers won’t be able to find the books they are looking for.
Henry’s miserliness becomes worse and worse and he cuts back on food and fuel for both of them to starvation levels – with disastrous results. This sounds a bit of a grim read but I enjoyed it and it’s a lesson for all misers everywhere.