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"The Only Really Objective Novel Ever Written"? Arnold Bennett's Riceyman Steps.

The opening lines of Arnold Bennett's 1923 novel Riceyman Steps seem to herald an aesthetically and stylistically retarded exercise in late nineteenth-century realism--a self-consciously detached, rationalistic, and materialistic study of a selected set of purportedly ordinary human experiences. Apparently to this end, the local and temporal co-ordinates of the narrative are established with a demonstrative exactitude. It is set on "an autumn afternoon of 1919 . . . in the great metropolitan industrial district of Clerkenwell" (11).[1] So also with the physiognomy and attire of the novel's protagonist, Henry Earlforward--as he is presented walking up the pedestrian thoroughfare from which the novel gets its name, we are told that "his complexion was still fairly good," that he had "rich, very red lips, under a small, greyish moustache and over a short, pointed beard" and that he wore "a neat dark-grey suit, which must have been carefully folded at nights, a low, white, starched collar, and a 'made' black tie that completely hid the shirt front." This catalogue of physical features is not only elaborately judicious in tone ("he was rather less than stout and rather more than slim"), but also hypostatic and pictorial in effect, so that the first paragraph of the novel stands as an artfully contrived vignette--an emblem, seemingly, of the coherent and clearly delimited presence of Henry Earlforward within the text. Moreover, the narrative explicitly evokes what might be interpreted as an idealized reader of realist fiction--"an experienced and cautious observer of mankind" who, it is said, would have been prepared to make a tentative estimate of Henry's age just from his outward appearance and "without previous knowledge of this man." Indeed, this first paragraph concludes by offering just the kind of concise, scientific, and apparently comprehensive analysis of Henry's character that such an observer might have demanded. We are invited to note Henry's "appearance of quiet, intelligent, refined and kindly prosperity" and "the varying lights of emotional sensitiveness" shining in "his little eyes"(11-12). The total effect of this opening passage is to suggest the insightfulness of the narrator in terms of what could reasonably be described as a narrow, insistent, and almost claustrophobic positivism.

Most critics of Bennett's works have been prepared to accept Riceyman Steps as an unproblematic fulfillment of the stylistic and ideological aspirations apparently expressed so uncomplicatedly here.[2] Among the early reviewers, James Douglas judged that "the realism of the story is staggering" and that "no artist has ever painted a background more vividly"(411); and A.S. Wallace praised Bennett for "a confident selection of significant detail that seems as effortless in its ease as it is graphic in its result" (414). George Moore was prepared to describe the novel as "the only really objective novel ever written, and very original."[3] Georges Lafourcade thought that he detected "too often a deliberate determination to be natural and convincing at any cost, to make every chink of the story tight against contradiction or disbelief"--to the degree, he felt, that "if the author were put on his mettle, he could write half a dozen chapters, perhaps half a dozen novels, merely to explain why one of his heroes blew his nose with his left hand or had a wart over his right eye" (187). For Margaret Drabble, writing in her influential biography of Bennett, "what makes [Riceyman Steps] so remarkable is its accuracy, its compassion, its feeling for the quality of working-class life and morality, its physical detail" (279).

Where at first the narrative seems to be highly conventional in its seeming allegiance to the principles and methods of "classic realism," however, further acquaintance with the text reveals a number of possible fissures in the narrative--quietly understated aporias on the part of the narrator that suggest irony or evasion rather than confidence or certainty in the details of the narration.[4] The topos of observability--though it seems initially to support the realistic principles on which the text is apparently based--serves in fact only to undermine the authority of the narrative voice. When we are told that Henry "might have been observed" walking up Riceyman Steps and that his eyes "seemed a little small," these qualifications seem cautiously scientific. As a result, when we are also told that he "gave an appearance of quiet, intelligent, refined and kindly prosperity" and that his "rich, very red lips" were "remarkable in their suggestion of vitality," the observability-topos seems to affirm the objective accuracy of these deductions, but it also admits their unattributability. As it turns out, several of the deductions made from Henry's appearance made in the first chapter are rendered profoundly ironic by subsequent events in the novel. Henry may have been "entitled to say that he was in the prime of life," but he will in fact be dead of cancer within the year; and far from being a model of "kindly prosperity," he is, it becomes increasingly clear, nothing more than a petty, cowardly, and mean-minded miser. The narrator's attempt to interpret Henry's nature from his physical appearance serves not as a proof of the narrator's objectivity but as an index of the unreliability of his powers of inference.

One effect of such ironic distancing, of course, is to shift the critical responsibility for the interpretation of character and events steadily away from this apparently unreliable narrator and onto the reader instead. So, for example, the narrator's laconic explanation for Henry's failure to protect the cheap books on the stand outside his shop from the rain--that he "had found in practice that a few drops of rain did no harm to low-priced volumes" (20)--is one of the first small clues in the book that Henry is not quite the paragon of mild-mannered common sense the narrator has so far suggested. It provides an indication of the ruthless negligence with which Henry runs his business, but in retrospect it can also be seen as a clear pointer towards Henry's characteristic lack of charity with his own time and energy. An "experienced and cautious observer" of narrative might indeed be able to recognize the slightly discordant tone of this remark as a challenge to his or her powers of analytical interpretation. Yet it would be an unnaturally skeptical reader who could read so much into so unassuming a sentence at so early a stage in the book. Moreover, it is not always clear whether apparent ironies of this kind should be interpreted as the products of a cultivated knowingness on the part of the narrator-figure--genuine ironies designed to provoke an equivalent knowingness on the part of the skeptical reader--or simply as the result of the narrator-figure's own failure to interpret events accurately and consistently.

Disinformations and contradictions recur so often throughout the text, and at points where they cannot possibly support local ironic effects, that it becomes increasingly impossible to explain them all in terms of a consistent pattern of narrative irony. So, for example, when Henry refuses to consider taking a taxi home from his walk with Violet even though his damaged knee is causing him "agony," the narrator's remark is that "[h]e preferred the hell in which he was. The grand passion which had rendered all his career magnificent, and every hour of all his days interesting and beautiful, demanded and received an intense, devotional loyalty; it recompensed him for every ordeal, mortification, martyrdom" (86). The "grand passion" at issue here is not Henry's feeling for Violet, but the passion that has motivated his life up to now--specifically, his accumulation of financial reserves. Yet the narrator's prose is so melodramatically grandiloquent at this point that it seems hard to believe that the "grand passion" referred to is really a passion so petty as the addiction to lucre, and not an emotion caused by the romance of the walk with Violet. An inattentive reader could easily be lulled into thinking the narrator is simply enthusing about the effects of Henry's new friendship with Violet, but, as the text clearly states, the "grand passion" is something that has illuminated "all his career," so that what makes his days "interesting and beautiful" can only be his dedication to thrift. Far from suggesting that such an obsessive concern for money could be regarded as being in any way unhealthy, the narrator continues to celebrate it as a triumph of "passion." The obvious word for such behavior is "miserliness," but Henry is not described as a miser until towards the end of the novel. Even then the word only comes out as "an astounding confession to a stranger" (to Dr. Raste [234]); and its use then is so shocking, not just because of the indecorum of such frankness before an outsider, but also because the narrator and all the characters have colluded for so long in avoiding it. The narrative of Henry's walk with Violet can hardly be described as ironic, because it does not draw attention to the gap between Henry's perceptions and the narrator's own--it only blurs them to the point at which the reader's faculty of criticism is almost inevitably disarmed.

Besides such evasions are a number of contradictions. Henry's shop is described on page 21 as "rather spacious" as well as "sombre." There is no mention of dust or dirt, and the implication of the proprietor's retirement to his office "as to a retreat" is that this is, or could be regarded as, a comfortable room. On page 89, however, the shop strikes Violet as "gloomy" (not just "sombre") and as having "the air of a crypt"--an image that suggests confinement rather than space. "The dirt and the immense disorder" (90) is so obvious to Violet that it "almost frightened her"; Henry's "retreat" becomes in her eyes a "dreadful den" (90-1). Again, towards the end of the novel we are told that Henry thought Elsie "was growing prettier and prettier every day--such dark eyes, such dark hair, such a curve of the lips . . . her mere health seemed miraculous to him" (334); yet this is the same woman whom the narrator describes as "[a] dowdy, over-plump figure, whom nobody would have looked twice at. A simple, heavy face, common except for the eyes and lips; with a harassed look; fatigued also" (378). Such contrasting descriptions clearly underline the extent to which the interpretation of events and appearances is dependent on the circumstances in which they are viewed, but in Riceyman Steps such contrasts are often so profoundly contradictory--almost to the point of irreconcilability--that the consistency of the narrative itself seems to be threatened. How can even Henry regard his dusty money-grubbing as "magnificent" in any sense of the word? How can the shop be both "spacious" and crypt-like, or Elsie both "over-plump" and a miracle of health--even at two different moments or to two different observers? It hardly seems possible to imagine a single, coherent reality that could embrace such conflicts of perspective. These knots in the fabric of the text can hardly be explained in terms of Bennett's own failure to imagine and organize the plot, since many of the contradictions or uncertainties the narrator does not resolve are essential to the way that the characters perceive each other. The narrator's unreliability--his failure to resolve the contradictory accounts of reality given at different points in the text--could reasonably be described as a kind of incompetence, but it is nevertheless a narrative incompetence that is deliberately cultivated by Bennett in order to achieve certain specific effects.

The inconsistencies of the narrative do more than merely disorient and challenge the reader. Indeed, the structure of the whole novel rests on what could be described as the narrator's susceptibility[5]: just as the narrator seems to be so ready to report misleading interpretations of outward appearances in the first paragraph of the book, so also, more subtly, does he seem too susceptible to the characters' own interpretations of themselves, of their environments, and of their interactions among themselves, even in the course of reporting them back to the reader. It is almost as if what we read is Henry's own explanation (to himself) of his treatment of "low-priced volumes" or his own account of the exhilaration of parsimony--relayed, but not in any way annotated or inflected, by an all too credulous intermediary. In other words, these passages could be read as an instance of unmarked "free indirect discourse."[6] At the same time, the narrator still retains the conventional prerogative of narrators in realist fiction of being able to see demiurgically into the characters' inward and unexpressed selves, so that his uncritical reporting of their views extends beyond what they might have said, to what they think and to what they are not even aware of thinking.[7] If the narrative could be said to be made up of "free indirect discourse," then it is important to recognize that some of that discourse is possibly not explicitly articulated by the characters even to themselves. Indeed, the passages referred to above might better be described as "free indirect unconscious discourse." The narrator is apparently so certain of his power to understand the characters' unexpressed selves that he can even comment, with what seems to be self-righteous omniscience, on the failure of Henry's charwoman, Elsie, to "come within a hundred miles of guessing that he was subject to dreams and ideals and longings" (30).

The narrator can be misleading, not because his access to knowledge about the characters is in any way limited, but because he is not critical enough to use this prerogative properly--he is too easily influenced by the point of view of each character at the moment when he gives an account of it. He quotes the thoughts and impressions of the characters, not only without making clear the degree to which they are consciously articulated, but also without clearly differentiating his own assessment from theirs. When Henry "suddenly thought of a ten-shilling Treasury note received from Dr. Raste, and took it from his waistcoat pocket," the reader is clearly told that "it was a beautiful new note, a delicate object, carefully folded by some one who understood that new notes deserve good treatment" (32). Yet should this be taken as a statement of fact (by the narrator) or as a statement of opinion (by Henry), or both? And if the sentiment that "new notes deserve good treatment" is to be attributed to Henry, how conscious is the thought meant to be? In this sentence, the two voices seem inseparable; and because the narrator's privileged knowledge of Henry's mind seems to penetrate to his unconscious thoughts, it is impossible to be sure that, even if the impression is indeed Henry's rather than narrator's, Henry would have recognized it in the form in which it is expressed. The distance between the narrator's consciousness and Henry's hardly seems wide enough or clear enough--even with a retrospective awareness of the ending of the story--to be accurately described as ironic.

Indeed, even when there is necessarily a transition between the voice of the narrator and the voice of a character, the boundary between them is often so continuous, so blurred, that it is impossible to be sure quite where impartial reporting begins or ends. So, for example, we are told initially, with some detachment, that Henry is "exhilarated, even inspired" by Violet's determined thriftiness in not being prepared to pay more than sixpence for a cookery-book (30-31). Two pages later, the narrative seamlessly incorporates what are apparently Henry's own thoughts on Violet's strength of character--"What a woman! He had been right about that woman from the first glance. She was a woman in a million." This is most easily interpreted as Henry's "free indirect discourse," though again it is impossible to say how conscious it is. When, just a little further on, we are told that Violet's shop "looked warm and feminine; it attracted" (32), it is quite possible--even natural--to ignore the warning implied by the word "looked" and not to recognize that this can only be a continuation of Henry's fantasy about Violet, not a truly impartial commentary: for this is the same establishment that is dismissed a few pages later as "a poor little shop, showing no individuality, no enterprise, no imagination, no potentiality of reasonable profits" (36). Certainly, in comparison with the warm, bright, and well-stocked emporium that the building later becomes under the management of the Belroses (345-6), there is little that is warm, feminine, or attractive about it while it is in Violet's hands. Far from presenting itself as a detached or rational account of a reality independent of the characters' own perceptions, the narrative is so warped by what Henry believes or wants to believe about Violet that it makes statements about their circumstances that from the wider perspectives of the novel are simply unrealistic.

Perhaps the best way to describe the narrative is to say that it is founded on a careful manipulation of subjunctivity--in the sense that some European languages (such as German) use the subjunctive mode as a way of marking extended passages of reported speech, opinion, or thought. English does not have this facility, so that its subjunctivity can only ever be implicit--where one voice is indirectly reporting or paraphrasing another, it is only by context or tone, rather than by grammar, that this can be deduced. Bennett's narrator is at times frankly subjunctive in that he relays the thoughts, feelings, and impressions of his characters in an entirely unmediated fashion, even if he nowhere explicitly suggests that he is acting as a reporter. At other times, it is less easy to be sure quite to what extent the narrator's words should be read subjunctively. Bennett exploits the fuzziness of the boundaries of subjunctivity in English in order to slide indiscernibly between all the different discourses contained within the narration as a whole--those of the characters, at all their various levels of consciousness, as well as that of the narrator, in all his oscillations between knowingness and susceptibility. As a result, he is able to refract the narrative viewpoint into a shifting pattern of what might be called separate points of subjunctivity (each more or less implicitly expressing a character's particular perspective on events). It is this refraction that provides the central dynamism of the plot--it is the dramatic tension between the various perspectives of the characters and the increasingly uncomfortable transitions between them that generate the impression of conflict and momentum in the story of their lives. In the sense that the tragedy of the Earlforwards lies in their mutual inability to understand the other's point of view, the discord of their own particular discourses reflected subjunctively throughout the text lies at the heart of the novel's concerns. In other words, Bennett found in his projection of an almost incompetently uncritical and inconsistent narrator a means of incorporating and giving voice to the contending privacies that form the fundamental material of the novel.

As the narrator seems to waver between detached objectivity and different partialities, he effectively uses narrative subjunctivity in order to report in turn the attempts of each character to create for himself or herself a personal narrative of selfhood--a kind of continuous, implicit autobiography.[8] So, for example, the early chapters of the novel are largely taken up with Henry's attempt to convince himself that there is a justification for his attraction to Violet. He tells himself that Violet really is an extraordinary woman, miraculously in harmony with his own philosophy of life and in no way likely to disarrange his ordered existence. Just as he is directly reported as thinking, "She has a vigorous mind" and "Not one woman in a hundred would have said that" (61), so also the narrator's exclamations "A shrewd woman! A woman certainly not without ideas!" (85) and "How delightful of her! How feminine! He could hardly believe it!" (87)--which should clearly be regarded as "free indirect discourse"--belong to the same continuity of perspective (the same point of subjunctivity) that expresses Henry's participation in the dynamics of the story. So also do most of the descriptions of Violet in the early part of the novel ("her glance varied, scintillating, darkling" [39]), the impression given of her shop, the recurrent flirtation with the idea of her girlishness (39, 122), and the half-developed suggestion of a financial ruthlessness on her part to match his ("he understood that he would not receive his shilling, and he admired her the more for her genial feminine unscrupulousness" [65]). It is through the linking together of all these impressions by means of reported thought, "free indirect discourse," implication, and partial analysis that Henry's subjectivity is given form within the fiction.

At the same time, while Violet might appear to Henry "masterful" and "experienced" (39), we know that she owes her economic independence only to her previous dependence on the adeptness and dishonesty of her deceased husband ("when Mr. Arb died he left a sum of money surprisingly large in view of the fact that clerks of works do not receive large salaries" [42]). After his death, bereft of "masculine guidance or protection," she is "heart-stricken" and "thoroughly disorganised." The narrative she tries to construct for herself (and which emerges subjunctively into the narrative of Riceyman Steps as a whole) is one in which Henry is a man on whom she can rely and by whom she can allow herself to be mastered ("she experienced a sensuous pleasure in the passionate resolution to be his disciple and lieutenant" [148]). On the Sunday when they first walk together, she is impressed with his new suit and his "unshakable calmness" (58), both of which she interprets as indicating "a man with reserves, both of character and of goods"--though we later discover that Henry does indeed have a reserve of new suits, but only because he bought a job lot of suits on the cheap and is too miserly to make good use of them (336). By the time she marries him, she is so convinced that he will be her "rock of defence, shelter, safety" (96) that she is prepared to view him--with a tragically inadequate perceptiveness--as "a wonderful man and an enigma."

Although Violet prides herself on her small achievements in "modifying the daily routine of the establishment and household" (172)--and the reader is drawn into her sense of steady progress in her struggle for change--it is implicit in the way that she approaches domestic reform that she has already tacitly ceded the final word to a husband who can only accurately be described as stubborn, selfish, and neurotic. Thus, her celebratory feelings at the abolition of the thermos flask used by Henry as a shift to save on gas are recorded subjunctively by the narrator with the words, "the disappearance of the thermos flask was regarded by everybody in the house [i.e. just Violet and Elsie] as the crown of a sort of revolution. Such was the force of the individuality of Mr. Earlforward, who had scarcely complained, scarcely argued, scarcely protested!" (173). Henry's fuel-saving thermos is the expression of his miserliness, for which the term "individuality" can only seem euphemistic from a perspective larger than Violet's. The fact is that Violet has allowed her life to become a battle against the tyranny of Henry's compulsion, because the logic of her desire for a masterful man has led her into constructing Henry as a prince in his own household. It is only from this point of view that his willingness to allow her to make him fresh tea could be seen as an instance of munificence--even though the narrator reports it so blandly and tonelessly that his viewpoint could almost be taken for objectivity. In the ultimate working out of the plot, it is Violet's attempt to construct a narrative of submission in her marriage that ultimately leads her to a premature death. She accepts defeat in the battle over whether or not the inhabitants of the shop are to eat steak in the "voluptuous pleasure of yielding" (186). Her voice resounds through the narrator's at this point: "She must submit. She must cling still closer to him, echo faithfully his individuality, lose herself in him. There was nothing else" (186). Sure enough, her urge towards the extinction of her own personality within Henry's results in her own death by malnutrition--caused ultimately by her acceptance of her husband's tyrannically abstemious regime.

Not all of the implicit narratives incorporated subjunctively within the text are quite so coherent or so ruthless in their ill-fated logic as Violet's private narrative of her relationship with Henry. The servant, Elsie, is particularly prone to the creation of half-hearted or disproportionate narratives--attempts to rationalize events in her life that are palpably ineffective.[9] She imagines that her lost lover Joe will return to her on the anniversary of his departure: the notion "surged inwards upon her from every quarter of the compass and overwhelmed her" (217). She knows that she has no real reason to think that Joe will return, and it is her consciousness of her folly in deluding herself in this way that is recorded so loudly in the narrative: "He would not reappear; it was inconceivable that he should reappear. This anniversary notion of hers, as she had often said to herself, was ridiculous" (217). Yet even this incomplete, all but suppressed fantasy provides Elsie with a logic that to some extent determines her actions, in that it motivates her to visit Dr. Raste and tell him about the dramatic deterioration in the health of her employers. Elsie creates a narrative for herself of a different kind when she "steals" food from the kitchen: "She knew she was wicked; she knew she was a thief; she did not defend herself by subtle arguments. . . . She was becoming a hardened criminal" (244). In fact, the vigorous Elsie's willingness to accept any guilt for her need to be properly fed only underlines her fundamental honesty, as against the unscrupulousness of employers who can pay her so little (only [pound]20 a year, or less than 8s. a week [106]) and yet feed her so badly that she is eventually reduced to eating bacon raw (258). Far from being "in the grip of [a] tyrannical appetite" (257), as the narrator suggests (and as Elsie feels), she is actually only seeking the sustenance that the physical nature of her work demands--and to which she also has a right as a servant "living in." At the same time, Elsie's self-criminalization contributes to the fetishization of starvation that is the index of the ill-health of the household--the symptom of Henry's approaching death and the cause of Violet's.

More complex and inchoate is the way in which Elsie's experiences at the end of the novel seem to be dominated by the dramatic motif of "a girl with a dog." Trapped in the house with the two sick men--Joe with malaria, Henry with cancer--Elsie is gazing out of her window late at night, dreadfully "oppressed" by the "heavy night of the town," when she hears a young woman come out of one of the neighboring houses in order to silence a barking puppy:

The woman ran out in a fury, picked up the animal, and flung it savagely into the kennel. Elsie could hear the thud of its soft body against the wood. She shrank back, feeling sick. . . . [T]he infant dog, as cold and solitary as ever, and not in the least comprehending the intention of the treatment which it had received, issued from the kennel and resumed its yapping and moaning. (317-18)

In the context it is impossible not to read this incident as a kind of symbol of cruelty and loneliness, as Elsie implicitly does. Later Elsie meets in the Square the same young woman, who asks after her employers in "soft, apprehensive, commiserating accents" (344), thus provoking Elsie to feel remorse both for what she regards as her own lack of consideration for Henry and for her over-hastiness in misjudging the woman for her treatment of the dog. Here it is Elsie who is trying to reconcile contradictory impressions, in much the same way that the reader has to throughout the book, but her attempts to make sense of the significance of these encounters are not necessarily convincing. The nocturnal violence against the puppy is too chilling to outweigh the woman's unctuously soothing tones; and there is no reason to think that the woman's interest in the Earlforwards indicates anything more generous than curiosity or salaciousness--nor that Elsie's patience and humanity in nursing the dying Henry are anything other than exemplary. For Elsie, there is a final irony in that her fate at the end of the novel is determined by another young-woman-with-a-dog--this time the doctor's young daughter Miss Raste, whose intervention is decisive in persuading Elsie to accept a comfortable post in her parents' household (382-4).

In conveying not just the distinctness and difference of the perspectives expressed in the course of the narration--emerging in the complex play between the novel's different subjunctivities--but also the efforts that the characters go to in order to explain and sustain those perspectives, Bennett could perhaps be taken as arguing that the impulse to construct selfhood in terms of a coherent personal narrative is essential to the human mind. The tragedy of the Earlforwards' marriage clearly stems largely from the inaccuracy and incompatibility of the partners' narratives of themselves, but even as the novel implicitly defines their experience as a contest for self-definition, it also seems to suggest that the instinctive desire for self-definition is a universal one. Elsie's horror at Joe's sale of his papers (364) clearly expresses her sense of his degradation before he returns to her, but what makes the sale so particularly degrading in the context of the novel as a whole is Joe's unnatural readiness to surrender his identity to someone else. His papers symbolically guarantee the stability of his individuality--his power to control the narrative that exists in his name. Yet just as it is unhealthy for people to give up on the attempt to control their own narrations of self, like Joe, it is equally unhealthy for this instinct towards controlling the narrative of self to get out of hand--for it to become a "grand passion"--or, more baldly, a neurosis--as it does in the case of Henry. His miserliness is simply an aspect of his drive to create for himself a wholly enclosed, safe, and unchanging environment. Within a matter of hours after Violet's death, "a little elusive thought" (333) has found its way into Henry's head--that as a widower he will be free again to do as he wishes: "The old freedom! And he would plunge into it as into an exquisite, warm bath, voluptuously. He would be more secretive, more self-centred, more prudent, more fixed in habit than ever! A great practical philosopher; yes!" As Robert Squillace puts it, his "grand passion" is not so much saving money (which is merely a means to an end) as "achieving predictability, paring down his life so as to avoid the accidents of desire" (144). Even in the face of a terminal disease, Henry is unwilling to seek help outside his own dusty microcosm. His "horror of hospitals" is explained by his impression of "the absence of privacy, the complete subjection of the helpless patients, the inelasticity of regulations, the crushing of individuality--this dreadful vision had ineffaceably impressed itself on his imagination, the imagination of an extreme individualist with a passion for living his own life free of the obligation to justify or explain it" (324). In his own mind, Henry is only ever "a very great practical philosopher, tenacious--it is true--in his ideas, but nevertheless profoundly aware of the wisdom of compromising with destiny" (23). This passage in one of those where the narrative voice seems to be so deeply colored by the voice of one of the characters--in this case Henry's--as to make it impossible to distinguish between them. It could be seen as much as an attempt by Henry to describe himself to himself as an attempt by the narrator to describe Henry to us. What gives the narrative its peculiar resonance, it might be argued, is the way in which Henry's peculiar disease--his miserliness--is itself represented as a kind of deformation of narrative--an obsession with defining and expressing his individuality without any constraints from outside himself. The experience that finally kills Henry is his discovery of the dependable Elsie's invasion of his safe in order to borrow sixpence--the violation of his privacy represented by "the sublime spectacle of the safe, sole symbol of security in a world of perils" (362). This is the moment when the terms of Henry's narration of his place in the world are contradicted so baldly that the shock of this contradiction leads to the extinction of his selfhood in death.

Yet if it is unhealthy for the impulse to construct narratives to become obsessive, then presumably there are parallels between the neurotic self-control of the miserly Henry and the artistic drive of the novelist himself? Squillace, in fact, has recently argued precisely this, describing Henry Earlforward as "Arnold Bennett made up for a part. . . . Henry is an author-surrogate in whom the qualities for which Bennett formerly most admired himself--balance, temperateness, punctilious organization, and a fine physical sensitivity to emotional experience--are exaggerated to reveal a latent monstrosity" (149-50). It is this underlying reflexivity in the novel that gives it its essential balance and believability--Henry may be monstrous, but he is a monstrosity drawn from within Bennett's experience of himself, not a phantasm conjured from an alien psychology. In any case, the instinct to construct and defend narratives that explain and justify a particular understanding of the universe can hardly be presented as unnatural or inhuman in the context of a novel, a form that is necessarily grounded in the impulse to read the world in terms of narrative. Moreover, Henry is not alone among the characters in the novel in seeking to create a narrative of selfhood. What makes his own narrative of self so destructive in the end is that his allegiance to it is so extreme and so inflexible.

I have argued that in the machinery of this particular novel character is expressed repeatedly in terms of implied narratives--the patterns of subjunctivity that define the tragically separate experiences of Violet and Elsie, as well as the rigidly distended self-narration by which Henry seeks to protect and justify his grotesque egotism. Some implicit support for reading the novel as a conscious demonstration of the limitedness and incompleteness of various kinds of narrative can be found in its recurrent allusions to newspaper-reporting--as a model not of detached objectivity in narration but of specious banality. Of Elsie's fiance, Joe, we are told that "his clothes were such as would have entitled him to the newspaper-reporter's description 'respectably dressed'--no better" (46), as if the narrator aspired to a similar kind of objectivity. Yet the journalistic euphemism is hardly impartial in its effects here. In evoking the tawdry circumstances that might prompt a reporter to make such a description, it serves not to distract us from the poverty of Joe's appearance, but to draw our attention to it. A little earlier on, Henry himself is said to be conscious of the idiosyncratically coded nature of the language used by the Press: "Mr. Earlforward, as an expert in interpretation," we are told, "was aware that 'well-known' on a newspaper placard meant exactly the opposite of what it meant in any other place" (33-34). Yet, despite the recurrent suggestion that newspaper-writing is misleading in its very banality, it is only in the cliches of newspaper-headlines that the text comes close to making any statement about the characters that is not in any way prejudiced by their own views of themselves:

A short and drab account of the nocturnal discoveries . . . appeared in one morning paper, and within six hours the evening papers, with their sure instinct for the important, had lifted Riceyman Steps to a height far above prize-fighting, national economics, and the embroiled ruin of Europe. Such trivialities vanished from their contents- bills, which displayed nothing but "Mysterious Death of a Miser in Clerkenwell," . . . "Astounding Story of Love and Death," "Midnight Tragedy in King's Cross Road," and similar titles, legends and captions. (373)

So long has the reader's experience of occurrences in Riceyman Steps been claustrophobically conditioned by the characters' own insulated experience of themselves that the sudden, unmoderated publicity of the circumstances of Henry's life and death seems rather shocking. At the same time, it is only by means of these already discredited journalistic cliches, ironically, that Bennett expresses a truth that is the necessary condition of the novel's being--that the existence of people like Henry, Violet, and Elsie is in a sense "important" and that the events of their lives can justifiably be described as "mysterious," "astounding," and "tragic."

Throughout the novel, then, the difficulties and contradictions in the narrator's account of events serve only to emphasize the non-negotiability of different individuals' perspectives on the world. These difficulties and contradictions are the very product of the characters' self-containment in that they derive directly from the narrator's "subjunctive" incorporation of the different subjectivities of the novel. In Riceyman Steps, Bennett succeeded in projecting the narrator as a supple, shifting, and almost unattributable voice that contains and moderates the conflicting sensibilities of the characters, without collapsing the technical and philosophical assumptions of the realist tradition. At a time when "modernist" novelists like Joyce and Woolf were creating narratives that insisted on the fragility of definitions of self and the subordination of personal identity to the flow of inner discourses--and as a result were implicitly laying claim to a peculiar narrative authority based in their privileged access, as authors, to the representation and organization of those discourses--Bennett was experimenting with a narrative technique that enabled him to acknowledge the fluidity of definitions of selfhood, without either laying claim to the authority to hear "streams of consciousness" with perfect clarity or detaching "discourse" from the individuals who produce it.

In particular, Riceyman Steps recognizes the way in which individuals construct their identities in a community by seeking implicitly to contest the shape of the reality in which their experiences are grounded. Bennett's retention of the seemingly disinterested and privileged narrator as a means of organizing the implicit and contentious "discourses" of the characters clearly suggests that in every set of events--every "story"--human beings behave as if there is an ultimate reality that needs to be contested. At the same time, the susceptibility of this narrator--his inability to reduce all the different perspectives of the story to a single, wholly coherent narrative--allows each of the characters to speak through him and lay claim to their own particular definition of this reality. In other words, Bennett foregrounded the narration itself as the field of the contest between different subjectivities rather than trying to efface it altogether, as some of the modernists tried to do. In achieving this, he found a way to create a novel that is realist in the sense that the narrative itself is self-contained and apparently transparent enough to be plausible as a historical or biographical account of a particular set of events--a fictional text that is fictional precisely in its constant denial of its fictionality--and yet that also acknowledges the intrinsic contestability of all such accounts.

Bennett himself acknowledged that he was trying to achieve something new in Riceyman Steps. In September 1923 he described the novel to Andre Gide in the following terms: "Scene--London. Type: realiste. Old-fashioned, of course. C'est plus fort que moi. We have several young novelists here who are trying to invent a form to supersede Balzac's. They are not succeeding. I also am trying, and almost succeeding. Still, I shall go on trying" (qtd. in Brugmans 129; emphasis Bennett's). Yet if, as I have argued, Riceyman Steps does succeed to some extent in reinventing the art of realist fiction, as Bennett hoped it would, then why have its critics so often chosen to praise it for its realistic objectivity rather than for its complex depiction of subjectivity? One answer to this question, perhaps, is that few shared (or still share) Bennett's clear sense of the possibility and desirability of accommodating modernist themes and concerns with at least some of the aims and techniques of the realist tradition. The very term "modernism" contains an assertion of a deliberate break with prior traditions. Even if the distance between "the young novelists" and the preceding generation was not so great in fact as was (and is) often claimed, the radicalism of "modernism" still lies as much in the claim to innovation as in the degree to which the claim was actually borne out. In other words, it suited modernist novelists to define their own aesthetics in opposition to those of Bennett and his generation, even if Bennett himself was clearly trying to modify his own artistic values in response--and felt that he was at least partially succeeding.[10] There is, however, a simpler explanation for Riceyman Steps's lack of influence or recognition--and from this point of view the responsibility for this lies with Bennett's admirers, rather than his detractors. It could reasonably be argued that it is precisely because his serious fiction has been celebrated almost exclusively for his gritty and unflinching fidelity to the canons of "classic realism" that his true originality and distinctiveness have not been adequately recognized. It is sadly ironic that a novel that makes such subversively innovative and enthralling play with the whole notion of objectivity in fiction should ever have been described--in terms so damning, given the aesthetic tendencies of the time--as "the only really objective novel ever written."


[2] Exceptions are James Hepburn, who questions the realism of the novel's setting and suggests that some of its physical details are best interpreted symbolically ("Some Curious Realism in Riceyman Steps." Modern Fiction Studies 8 [1962]: 116-260); Walter Allen (97), who argues that the novel's realism is limited and distorted both by "Bennett's irony" and by an underlying impulse towards the grotesque; and Frank Kermode, who highlights the "density" with which reality is registered in Riceyman Steps (17-19), but points to what he sees its suggestive "surplus of sense" (20)--a surplus that he suggests enabled Bennett to transcend, to some extent, the tyranny of "the story for story's sake" (22- 3). More recently, Robert Squillace's landmark study has set an entirely new agenda for the study of Bennett's work.

[3] Quoted in Swinnerton (478--entry for 31 March 1924).

[4] For a definition of the phrase classic realism, see Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice (London: Routledge, 1980) 70-84.

[5] Kermode (19) describes the narrator as "considerate"--though of course his "consideration" extends only to the characters in the narrative, not to its readers, who are forced to try and make sense of its contradictions.

[6] For a definition and discussion of this term, see Mieke Bal's Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (Trans. Christine van Boheemen. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985) 137-42.

[7] David Lodge has remarked that "an unreliable 'omniscient' narrator is almost a contradiction in terms, and could only occur in a very deviant, experimental text" (154). Such a narrator does seem to occur in Riceyman Steps, in a context that is not obtrusively deviant or experimental.

[8] It is in this respect, perhaps, that Bennett's method of creating a pluralistic, multi-vocal narrative differs from Dostoevsky's, in the terms established by Bakhtin. Rather than insisting on the dialogicities within and among the characters' voices, Bennett creates an open-ended narrative only by acknowledging the characters' drive to close it.

[9] The private narratives that Elsie attempts to construct are certainly no more accurate or well founded than those of her employers, but she is never as firmly dedicated to any particular version of narrative as they are, and it is perhaps this that ultimately enables her to escape the tragic ending of the novel.

[10] See further the extensive discussion of all these issues by Squillace, especially chapter 1.


Allen, Walter. Arnold Bennett. London: Horne and Van Thal, 1948.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Bennett, Arnold. Riceyman Steps. Ed. Anita Miller. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1984.

Brugmans, Linette F., ed. Correspondance Andre Gide-Arnold Bennett. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1964.

Douglas, James. "The Miser and the Maid." Hepburn 410-12.

Drabble, Margaret. Arnold Bennett. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1974.

Hepburn, James, ed. Arnold Bennett: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Kermode, Frank. Essays on Fiction 1971-82. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983.

Lafourcade, Georges. A Study of Arnold Bennett. London: Frederick Muller, 1939.

Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

Squillace, Robert. Modernism, Modernity, and Arnold Bennett. Lewisburg: BucknellUP, 1997.

Swinnerton, Frank, ed. Arnold Bennett: The Journals. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954.

Wallace, A. S. "Mr. Bennett at His Best." Hepburn 413-14.

NEIL CARTLIDGE holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and is a former British Academy postdoctoral Research Fellow in Oxford. He is currently a Lecturer in the Department of English at University College Dublin.
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