I am currently re-reading Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett. I first read this when I was a student studying for an English Literature degree and Bennett was required reading and the starting point for our Modern Fiction course – we didn’t call them modules in those days! I loved his writing then and read everything he wrote with The Old Wives’ Tale probably my favourite. I recently found a copy of this in our local Oxfam bookshop and will move on to it next.
Riceyman Steps is set in Clerkenwell in London, an area I first got to know well in the 1980s when it was undergoing a transformation to cool wine bar and brasserie and coffee shop land. Bennett’s novel takes place in 1919-1920 and his Clerkenwell is poor, neglected, shabby and heavily polluted. The aftermath of The Great War, as it was then called, is implicit in the mood, atmosphere and detail of the novel and Bennett’s writing is truthful, sympathetic and extraordinarily poignant as he tells the story of his desperately sad, vulnerable and often self-deluded characters.
I always enjoy novels set in London, the city where I was born, lived and love and know better than any other place. As far as I know, this is Bennett’s only London-based novel as the others are all focused around his Five Towns which we know today as areas of Stoke on Trent in Staffordshire. Reading Riceyman Steps exactly a hundred years after it is set (published in 1923) seems most appropriate and offers a perspective that was, of course, lacking when I first read it. It also feels personal as my grandparents were living in nearby Islington in 1919 (where they were both born and where my father was born in 1920))and my entire family going back several generations had close connections with the area, my Great Great Grandmother being born, in fact, in Clerkenwell itself. And as if these hooks are not enough, my son has just started to work and live close by in, respectively, Islington and Hoxton.
Do students still study Arnold Bennett and his wonderful novels? I have no idea and somehow doubt it. But I will always be grateful that my degree course at the Polytechnic of North London in the 1970s introduced me to him – and I am loving the chance to re-read his novels.