A Return to Riceyman Steps
"I suppose you wouldn't care for me to show you some bits of Clerkenwell?" suggests second-hand bookseller Henry Earlforward to the widow he is unromantically pursuing. Violet Arb is the new owner of the confectionary shop opposite. Henry and Violet are the antagonists of Bennett's late masterpiece, ‘Riceyman Steps’, the story of their mis-matched union in which her futile attempts to change his miserly ways lead to their deaths from self-inflicted starvation.
In Chapter VIII, Henry and Violet ‘walk out’ for the one and only time before their brief and disastrous marriage on a fresh Sunday morning in the autumn of 1919. One sunny Saturday afternoon in March 2012, two of us from Staffordshire, a friend from St Albans and two friends from Sussex visited their stopping places plus some others besides.
We started at the steps themselves, which lead from Kings Cross Road up to Granville Square. Their physical location is Gwynne Place, a tiny cul-de-sac accessed through the archway of the Farringdon Travelodge. Its drab 1960s façade bears a plaque commemorating the novel’s location erected by the Arnold Bennett Society and a local history group, the Amwell Society. The Amwell Society’s pictorial Riceyman Steps tour is accessible on line at www.amwellsociety.org/files/riceyman.pdf
We posed for a group photo
on their half-landing, where in the opening scene, Henry pauses to
simultaneously survey his shop at the bottom left-hand corner of the steps and
the unwitting Violet in her establishment opposite. Neither of these premises
may have ever existed, though two one-storey dwellings flanking the steps appear
in a 19th century print illustrating Jenny Graveson’s 2000 Riceyman
Steps Tour for the Society. However, the unwindowed three-storied backs of the
neighbouring houses still answer to Bennett's description of "the buttressed
walls of a mighty fortress.." an allusion to Clerkenwell’s medieval history.
AB’s ‘Riceyman Square’ (named after Henry’s grandfather’s brother) was in a state of decline, its squalid overcrowded Georgian terraces inhabited by the families of small tradesmen. He records its construction in the ‘hungry forties’ around the fictional St Andrew’s church, whose architecture he found devoid of any redeeming feature.
St Andrew’s causes the first friction
between Henry and Violet. She is half-inclined to attend morning communion
there, but Henry, a non-churchgoer, is keen to prolong their outing until the
service is safely over.
In reality, the elegant and intimately proportioned Granville Square is a distinct improvement on AB’s creation. Spruce brick and stucco facades surround the pleasant green which now replaces the unobjectionable St Philip’s church illustrated in Jenny Graveson’s tour. A nearby residential block in Lloyd Baker Street is named ‘Riceyman House’.
On an earlier foray with Henry into the square, Violet notices a corner house styling itself the ‘Percy Hotel’. While this building plays no further part in the novel, it may allude to nearby Percy Circus - an architectural ensemble as splendid as anything in Bath. For a Russian revolutionary, it must have been an upmarket abode - a plaque records Lenin’s residence in 1902. It is said that Lenin and a young Joseph Stalin met in the Crown and Anchor pub (now The Crown Tavern) on Clerkenwell Green when the latter was visiting London in 1903. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerkenwell
Communism’s shadow falls on the inhabitants of Riceyman steps later in the novel when Henry regales Violet and Elsie (their simple but kind-hearted servant) with a newspaper report of a ‘Fatal Affray in a Clerkenwell Communist Club’. A waitress, whose courageous intervention had prevented a second death, turns out to be Elsie’s half-Italian cousin. Because of the large number of Italian immigrants living there from the 1850s to the 1960s, Clerkenwell was dubbed “Little Italy”.
Steering Violet safely away from St Andrew’s, Henry leads her round the corner to Wilmington Square, so vast, so unexpected that ‘it seemed to have no business where it was.’ Apart from the colour of the facades, which are of yellow brick and stucco, AB’s description is largely recognisable. ‘…a vast square – you could have put four Riceymans into it – of lofty reddish houses, sombre and shabby, with a great railed garden and great trees in the middle…’ We discovered a clump of violets nestling between the tread and the riser on a flight of front steps.
Like Riceyman Square, the fictionally dilapidated Wilmington Square is in reality rehabilitated. The same must be even truer of Violet and Henry’s next port of call, Coldbath Square, which Bennett describes as ‘…picturesque and deeper sunk into antiquity, save for the huge, awful block of tenements in the middle. The glimpses of interiors were appalling. At the corners stood sinister young men, mysteriously well-dressed, doing nothing whatever..’
We failed to find Coldbath Square, which lay some distance away on the west side of the Farringdon Road, but might well have been disappointed by its current gentrified state. Another tour of Riceyman Steps, available online at http://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/2008/07/27/walking-riceyman-steps/ describes Coldbath Square as “super-smart…with mock-antique cobbles and heritage-looking street furniture setting off the smart brick buildings.”
“’I don’t like this at all’, said Mrs Arb, as it were sensitively shrinking.” She is relieved when Henry suggests continuing to the more salubrious area of St John’s Priory Church. But on the way there, at St James’s church, Henry’s old knee injury starts to trouble him so much that he would be prepared to go inside to sit down - even with a service underway. But unaware of his pain, Violet is too embarrassed to do this.
There are no seats in St John’s churchyard either, so they remain outside, Henry standing on one leg while Violet deciphers the tablet on its west front: “The Priory Church of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, consecrated by Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, 10th March, 1185.” “Fancy them knowing the day of the month, too!” exclaims Violet. (10th March was also the date of our visit).
We did not find this church either, but at the far end of St John’s Lane, our attention, like Violet’s, was captivated by the medieval-looking but in fact heavily restored stonework of St John’s Gate. By now, Henry had had more than enough, but ‘Violet must needs go under the gateway into a street that seemed to fascinate her.’
What we discovered instead in the archway and gatehouse was the newly-reopened Museum of the Order of St John. Admission is free to its rich collections of paintings, furniture, silver, metalwork, jewellery, manuscripts and fine books chronicling the Clerkenwell Priory founded in 1140 and which was the English headquarters of the Order.
After the reformation, the buildings were variously used as the offices of the Master of the Revels (who licensed plays), a coffee house, the offices of the Gentleman’s Magazine, which Samuel Johnson wrote for, and as the Old Jerusalem Tavern, frequented among others by Charles Dickens.
St John’s Lane is now a quiet back street, but in AB’s account, ‘..there was an enormous twilit shoeing-forge next door to the Chancery of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and …the air rang with the hammering of a blacksmith. Then the signs over the places of business attracted (Violet); she became charmingly girlish.’
At the junction of St John’s Lane with Charterhouse Street, Violet spots a branch of Barclay’s Bank (still there today). She reacts with an indignation which Henry finds admirable.’ “Those banks are everywhere these days,“ she protests. ”You look at any nice corner site and before you can say knife there’s a bank on it. I mistrust those banks. They do what they like.”
We made a detour to nearby Exmouth Market, where we discovered a thriving shopping street, home not only to trendy cafes and fashion shops but also to an old-fashioned ironmongers and a bookshop. AB refers to it when describing an inhabitant of an overcrowded house on Riceyman Square: ‘On the ground floor lived a meat-salesman (who) shouted and bawled chap bits of meat in an open-fronted shop in Exmouth Street …’
But by now, Henry's only thought is getting home. Near St John’s Gate, a taxicab stands waiting, but Henry, in thrall to his miserly passion, resists taking it. ‘He led Mrs Arb down towards the nearest point of Farringdon Road, where a tram would take them back home.
“Paradise for one penny! No, two pence; because he would have to pay for Mrs Arb!”’ Henry’s avarice out trumps his agony; the pair return on foot.
‘He could scarcely talk now and each
tram that passed him in his slow and endless march gave him a spasm of mingled
bitterness and triumph.’ ‘ "I’m afraid I’ve walked you too far," ‘Violet notices
eventually. ‘“I thought you were limping a bit". "Oh no, I always limp a bit.
Accident. Long time ago." And he smartened his gait.’ They reach Riceyman Steps
in silence and each disappears into the solitude of his own establishment.’ But
in the afternoon, their doomed relationship resumes when Violet calls on Henry
to enquire about his leg.
We parted from our friends at Kings Cross, from which point onward, our return journey to Cockfosters tube station, where we had parked, proved similarly crisis-ridden. A tube-station notice informing us that the northbound Piccadilly line was shut down because of “somebody on the line”, lent our Clerkenwell visit a tragic undertone.
With Kings Cross taxi drivers feigning never to have heard of Cockfosters (!), it took us two crowded bus rides to Wood Green, a taxi ride to Cockfosters then a dash by car to reach our friends in St Albans and their awaiting feast.
But not for the first time, Bennett had introduced us to a whole new area, historic, distinctive and beautiful, whose name evokes its rural origins. (Henry imagines telling Violet how ‘Clerkenwell was once a murmuring green land of medicinal springs, wells, streams with mills on their banks, nunneries, aristocrats, and holy clerks who presented mystery-plays. Yes, he would tell her about the drama of Adam and Eve being performed in the costume of Adam and Eve to a simple and unshocked people.’)
Aside from Henry and Violet’s tour, Clerkenwell offers a great deal of architectural and historic interest. Myddleton Square, home to Dr Raste, the physician who attends Violet and Henry in their latter stages, is reputedly the largest square in London. It owes its name to Hugh Myddleton (1560 - 1631) a wealthy Welsh goldsmith and the hero of London’s water supply.
At no small cost to himself, he helped finance the digging of the New River, a 40-mile long channel running from the River Lea in Hertfordshire to the New River Head – a pond just behind Myddleton Square, from where water was distributed to the city via a network of wooden pipes. The splendid former headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board (now residential apartments) now stand on top.
But astonishingly, none of us had ever set foot in these tranquil squares and streets, though they lie just a short distance from major thoroughfares. This part of London may have greatly changed (and certainly for the better) since AB chose it as his setting for ‘Riceyman Steps’, but its charm and obscurity persist.
“Look at that!” said Mr Earlforward eagerly, pointing to the sign ‘Wilmington Square.’ “Ever heard of it before?” Mrs Arb shook her astonished head. “No”, rejoins Henry. “And nobody has. But it’s here. That’s London, that is!”
Christine Conlin 2012