“Riceyman Steps” and the War

Near the start of the book Henry Earlforward explains why the electric lamp in his shop does not work. “Fuse gone. They do go… We’re not quite straight here yet. The truth is, we haven’t been straight since 1914.”

Is Bennett giving us a hint here that Henry’s monstrous meanness – he won’t even pay for a bit of fuse wire – begins with the start of the War? This would tie in with the interpretation that the miserliness is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and an attempt to keep control within a world that threatens chaos. The threat continues after the war, and, for Henry, the existence of communism sums up all the danger and unpredictability of the post-war world, against which a large and visible stash of money is the only defence. After Henry has read out the newspaper story about the communist murder in Clerkenwell, both he and Violet feel an almost visceral urge to cage and secure their wealth:

All this while the day’s takings had lain on the desk unprotected and unconcealed! Even during the unlocked shop-door interval they had lain there! The little heaps of paper and coins seemed to accuse somebody of criminal negligence, almost of inviting communism to ruin the structure of society… Violet, indeed, that sagacious, bright, energetic and enterprising woman of the world, was in a state of quivering, confused emotion whose intensity she scarcely realized. When Henry brought out his safe-key she was strangely relieved, and her glittering eyes seemed to say: “This money’s been lying here on the desk too long. Hide it quickly, quickly! Secure it without another moment’s delay, for heaven’s sake!”

The War had rationed food for everyone (today I was in the library reading Vanity Fair for 1918. In that posh fashion magazine there were recipes for eggless puddings, because eggs were now 4/- a dozen. No wonder an egg is such a treat for Elsie in the novel.) Bennett the gourmet has imagined a character who has so internalised wartime control that he wants and needs to keep on rationing himself, even to starvation.

So maybe we should see Henry as another war casualty, like poor shell-shocked Joe. Both treat Elsie the servant badly – Henry exploits and starves her and Joe threatens her with a knife. She accepts this and gives both her unconditional love and loyalty. (“If Joe should have a fit of violence it could spend itself on her in the home.”) She is the kind of saint who breaks most of the standard moral rules – she steals, lies, and has a man in her bed, and every crime increases our admiration for her, because the crimes come from the instinctive generosity with which she always faces the world. Unlike Henry, she has the sense to be generous to herself from time to time, and it takes more than politics to frighten her. When she hears about the Communist murder, she doesn’t recoil into terrified miserliness, but discovers a kinship with one of the Communist community.

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