Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

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

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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