The Times Litt. Sup. has been discussing the psychologist W. H. R. Rivers recently (based on Ben Shephard’s interesting-looking book, Headhunters) so I sent them this letter, which appears in the current issue:
Sir, – Ashok Bery (Letters, August 1) notes how the writings of W. H. R. Rivers influenced the imagination of W. H. Auden. More immediate was Rivers’s influence on Arnold Bennett.
Having been introduced to Rivers by Siegfried Sassoon, Bennett visited him at Cambridge and later invited him on a three-week cruise on his yacht. In an affectionate memoir published after Rivers’s death, Bennett describes him as “thrilling on the self-protective nature of shell-shock and kindred disorders”. The influence of Rivers’s ideas can be seen clearly in Riceyman Steps, where Joe, the disturbed and violent ex-soldier, tries to protect himself from the aggressive man he has become by selling his papers, the official proofs of his identity. Rivers may also have affected Bennett’s portrayal in the same novel of the miser Henry Earlforward, who tries to protect himself from the world’s instability (“We haven’t been straight since 1914”) by means of self-destructive self-restriction and control.
Dr George Simmers
Bennett had dealt with disturbed minds, and with misers, before Riceyman Steps, but the intense analysis of mental aberration in this novel comes, I’m sure, from the stimulus of his discussions with Rivers.
Not that the novel is solely dependent on Rivers’s theories. Bennett had plenty of opportunity to observe the war-damaged when his Essex house had been used as a billet for damaged soldiers. ‘Some of the billettees,’ remembered the novelist Richard Blaker, who was one of them, ‘were very genuine wrecks – down and out physically and mentally haggard.’
‘Mentally haggard’ describes Joe well. I’ve read quite a few shell-shock fictions from the twenties, and the depiction of Joe is the most unsparing, as well as one of the most unsettling. The novel brings him to a happy ending, looked after by the glorious Elsie (whose unconditional generosity was not enough to save Henry Earlforward, but is just what Joe needs) but the sequel, Elsie and the Child shows Bennett recognising that any respite for Joe would be a fragile and temporary one. He relapses.