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66 SOME NEW LIGHTS ON RICEYMN STEPS By Brian Durkin, O. P. (Rosary College) Critics frequently praise the craftsmanship of Rlceyman Steps, noting its effective characterization, realistic setting, the development of each section, and the balanced structure of the whole. Part One shows Bennett at his best; the sober realist, who minutely etched the drabness of Five Towns, here portrays a smaller area, Rlceyman Square, in London's squalid Clerkenwell. There Henry Earlforward manages his secondhand book store, T. T. Riceyman's, which looks out on Rlceyman Steps; and Violet Arb, a widow of means, runs a confectionery shop. Watching the growing intimacy of the two is Elsie Strickland, who chars for them both. Widowed, "after two nights of marriage and romance with a youth who went East in 1915 to die of dysentery," Elsie, now engaged to Joe, a victim of shell shock, grins with approval when Henry begins to court Violet Arb in early October. Part Two describes the wedding of Henry and Violet which occurs the next January; the third opens in October, disclosing the domestic situation of the last nine months and the effects of Henry's increasing miserliness and ill health. Part Four reveals the mounting tensions in the household, the physical and mental sufferings caused by Henry's self-imposed privations; Part Five recounts the deaths of Violet and Henry, both of whom were ravaged by disease and malnutrition in less than a year of married life. The first four books are about the same length; the last is slightly longer, for it includes the problems of Elsie, Joe. and their benefactor , Dr. Raste. Sketched so briefly, the novel seems bleakly limited in character appeal and theme; yet, critics rank Rlceyman Steps as one of Bennett's best works. J. B. Priestley comments: "Rlceyman Steps, though it lacks the epic fullness of the two great Five Town stories and is more limited in its scope, is undoubtedly Mr. Bennett's greatest achievement as a pure craftsman, and is perhaps the best example of his undisguised romantic method...."! While giving due recognition to its merits, many critics deny that Rlceyman Steps is a comedy, pointing out that Henry's compulsive penny-pinching, pound-hoarding, so humourously developed in the early sections, changes to dreary miserliness, detailed in scenes oppressively tragic. In Prlmltlvlsm and Taste, James Hall states: "A continuous recognition of the self destructlveness Involved balances this cheerless comedy."2 "The minute depiction of the drab setting serves to envelop us in an atmosphere of pettiness and comes near to producing the effect of a case report," comments B. McCullough in Representative English Novelists.3 Although 67 Walter Allen regards it as a remarkable novel, "outside the tradition of English fiction as The Old Wives' Tale and Clayhanger are at its centre," he nevertheless calls it a "clinical study of a pathological case. . . . One would not, I suppose, normally describe Rlceyman Steps as a comedy, but it is the underlying pattern of comedy . . .which makes the novel so remarkable and gives it so much the air of a tour de force."^ But the author intended this novel to be a comedy, sheer comedy. A hitherto unpublished correspondence between Bennett and Michael Morton, while the latter was writing a dramatic adaptation of the work in 1925, proves conclusively that Bennett aimed to write a humorous novel about a middle-aged couple whose foibles would give him rare opportunities to comment wryly on the comedy of life. Morton's second letter, August 20, 1925, has a revealing paragraph: "It is all comedy, quaint comedy which I think will make the tragedy all the more terrible when it comes. There is nothing to indicate it at the opening — it will be unexpected."5 It is significant that Bennett did not wish Henry's parsimony to be over-emphasized. In early October Bennett wrote to Morton: "I'm anxious to avoid too much insistence on the miserliness throughout this whole act. The touch of it in Act I was exactly right. In Act II, I fear monotony. I fear tiring the audience and putting them out of sympathy with both Earlforward and Violet. If you put into the play...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 66-80
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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