Distinguishing between different kinds of hunger and starvation, Maud Ellman has said that ‘[h]unger depends upon its context for its meaning, but it is also true that self-inflicted hunger is a struggle to release the body from all contexts, even from the context of embodiment itself. It de-historicises, de-socialises, and even de-genders the body’ (Ellman 1993, p.14). Through starvation, the protagonist of Arnold Bennett’s novel Riceyman Steps achieves precisely that: having ventured into society through marriage, he retreats from it; by refusing to eat he deliberately emasculates himself. The plot is simple: the protagonist Henry Earlforward, a middle-aged bookseller, marries Violet, a middle-aged widow who runs the confectioner’s shop across the road. Their marriage is doomed: it becomes a struggle for power, domination and sex fought over the issue of food. The more Violet tempts and implores Henry to eat, the further he retreats into self-imposed starvation. Within a year of their marriage, Violet dies after a surgical operation owing to ‘undernourishment’ under Henry’s regime. Henry is entirely successful in his bid to ‘release his body from all contexts, even from the context of embodiment itself’, he dies a few days after Violet – death is, after all, the logical conclusion of such an endeavour. This is the simple plot of the novel; the more closely it is examined, however, the more complex the issues that Bennett was raising can be seen.
To begin with the historical context: Riceyman Steps is one of Bennett’s less-well-known novels, it was originally published in 1923 and it is set in 1919, immediately after the First World War. Bennett’s new interest in psychology at this period is particularly evident in this novel. He had read Freud with great interest, and spent time discussing Freud’s work with his friend William Rivers – as well as discussing Rivers’s own work with neurasthenic soldiers at Criaglockheart during the war. Rivers treatment of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen among others is well-known. This interest is manifest in the story of the Earforward’s maid Elsie in Riceyman Steps, which runs parallel to Henry and Violet’s history: Elsie – a war widow at 23 – is in love with Joe, a shell-shocked soldier, now unemployed, hungry, and given to violent uncontrollable outbursts.
In 1924 Virginia Woolf read Riceyman Steps and hated it. She wrote: ‘I’m drowned in despair already. Such dishwater! Pale thin fluid in which (perhaps, but I doubt it) once a leg of mutton swam’ (Mendelson and Squillace 1991, p. xxiv). Her use of this metaphor, consciously or not, gets right to the heart of the novel’s preoccupations and its parsimonious characters’ approach to life. But Woolf fails to give Bennett credit for addressing questions of how men come to terms with their experiences of the Great War, and a society turned on its head in the aftermath. Her novel Jacob’s Room (1922) came out the year before his and is in its own way a response to the war; its title focuses on the space her male protagonist once occupied, but just as significantly it indicates his absence: Jacob is missing. But Bennett’s protagonist, though a ‘limping special constable’ (p.18) rather than combatant, has more in common with Woolf’s Septimus Smith, the neurasthenic former soldier in Mrs Dalloway (1925). Smith throws himself from a window onto railings below in order to preserve himself from medical intrusion into his disordered mind in the forms of Holmes and Bradshaw. Earlforward’s impulse for preservation is to stop eating; the outcome, while considerably less dramatic, is the same.
The aftermath of the First World War is present Bennett’s novel in various other ways. Henry’s second-hand bookshop is in a run-down area of London near King’s Cross:
It seemed strangely, even fatally, out of place in that dingy and sordid neighbourhood where existence was a dangerous and difficult adventure in almost frantic quest of food, drink and shelter. (Bennett 1991 p. 18; my emphasis)
This kind of hunger and ‘frantic quest’ for food is Joe’s experience, markedly different from the choice Henry makes not to eat. He sells collectors’ items as well as cheap editions of popular novels – and, significantly cookery books:
In the course of the war, when food-rationed stay-at-homes really had to stay at home, and, having nothing to do while waiting for air-raids… he had done a very large trade in cheap editions of novels, and quite a good trade in cheap cookery-books that professed to teach housewives how to make substance out of shadow.’ (Bennett 1991, p.20; my emphasis)
Earlforward reduces his own physical substance to shadow, as he changes after his marriage from a man capable of enjoying a modest meal, to an obsessive, intent on – and succeeding in – starving himself to death.
Cultural studies have shown us that this was the period in which being well-covered came into general discredit: in 1914 an American magazine announced that: ‘Fat is now regarded as an indiscretion, and almost a crime’ (quoted in Schwartz 1986, p.25), Abigail Bray (2005) reminds us that ‘the introduction of the calorific unit into everyday lives…recodified consumption’ (p.127) and comments that one best-selling book published in 1918 describes calorie counting as ‘an act of patriotism and humanitarianism’. Maud Ellman (1993) says that ‘during the First World War…gluttony in women aroused abhorrence – because stored fat represented sugar, and so they were depriving European allies of rations’ (p. 8; my emphasis).
There is, then, some evidence that – his gender aside – historical conditions conspire with Henry in his obsessive behaviour. The war means deprivation and the desire to protect one’s possessions, but even Henry is ‘amazed at the power of his passion’ for hoarding (p.85). On one occasion Violet see the inside of Henry’s safe:
It was full of gold sovereigns. Violet had never seen this gold before, nor suspected its existence. She was astounded, frightened, ravished. He must have kept it throughout the war, defying the Government’s appeal to patriots not to hoard….he was a fortress, impregnable. (p.159)
It is not just Henry himself, but his house and his shop that are a described as a ‘fortress’. The wall around his yard is seven feet high and ‘no sound ever came through it’ (p. 23). On the evening of their honeymoon, Violet realises that she had passed under Henry’s domination: ‘It was as if she had entered a fortress and heard the self-locking gates thereof clang behind her. No escape!’ (p. 100).Their bedroom is ‘a citadel’ (p. 102) and ‘the house was sealed up from the world. Not a door open; not a window open!’ (p. 112); ‘inside the sealed house London did not exist’ (p. 115).This imagery of defence and self-imprisonment constructed around Henry runs throughout the text – and it is fatally undermined by his marriage to Violet, which effectively allows ‘the enemy’ in.
The use of ‘ravished’ to describe Violet’s reaction to Henry’s gold emphasises the link between sex and money, for set against this imagery of containment is another contradictory recurring motif that concerns Henry’s potential for engagement, and indeed for sexuality. In the very first paragraph of the novel, he is described as having ‘rich, very red lips’ which are ‘quite remarkable in their suggestion of vitality’ (p. 7), this image becomes another motif: Violet muses on his ‘rich lips on hers’ (p. 84), he has ‘full, heavy, crimson lips’ (p. 114), and indeed ‘indolent lips’ (p. 121) – they become a refrain, but his potential passion is only fulfilled once, and in this respect gender, and ultimately de-gendering, really becomes an interesting issue, for there is a major tension within his character concerning his potential virility, and his fear of sexuality. Susan Bordo says that ‘the body is the locus of all that threatens our attempts at control’ (1993, p. 145), while Hilde Bruch, assuming that most anorectics are female, says that the ‘avoidance of any sexual encounter, a shrinking from all bodily contact’ is a major characteristic (1986, p. 73). Henry’s battle between his desire for autonomy and his desire to satisfy his sexual appetite is fought with Violet, who wants her husband to eat in order to maintain his strength – amongst other things to satisfy hersexual appetite – and his refusal to comply. Their relationship is a sterile one which would hardly be out of place in the spiritual and sexual sterility of T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922).
There is one occasion when Henry indulges himself. On their wedding day, Bennett’s middle-aged couple are astonished to be presented with a wedding cake by their sentimental maid, Elsie, and they gorge themselves on it. Left alone, Violet and Henry
[…] could afford to be young and to live perilously, madly, absurdly. They lost control of themselves, and gloried in so doing. The cake was a danger to existence. It had the consistency of marble, the richness of molasses, the mysteriousness of the enigma of the universe. It seemed unconquerable. It seemed more fatal than daggers or gelignite. But they attacked it. Fortunately neither of them knew the inner meaning of indigestion. When Henry had taken the last slice, Violet exclaimed like a child:
‘Oh, just one tiny piece more!’ And with burning eyes she bent down and bit off a morsel from the slice in Henry’s hand.
‘I am living!’ shouted an unheard voice in Henry’s soul. (p.109)
This is a comic account, a hyperbolic description of a middle-aged couple over-indulging, but it is gentle comedy – Henry’s ‘I am living’ retains a certain amount of poignancy, signifying the ridiculousness of the exclamation at the same time as acknowledging the fact that this is for him an act of unprecedented uninhibited indulgence. It is no accident that military imagery is employed to describe this cake, it is a ‘danger to existence’: ‘unconquerable’, more ‘fatal’ than ‘daggers or gelignite’ – and Henry and Violet go on the attack. It’s also highly sensual: Violet ‘with burning eyes’ bends to take a morsel ‘from the slice in Henry’s hand’ – it’s not only sensual, but profoundly erotic. Like the lovingly described but uneaten feast of delicacies in Keats’s poem ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, the Earforward’s wedding cake here stands in for and symbolises their sexual union. But as a comic scene it is brilliantly achieved, for how else could Bennett have made sex between two such average middle-aged people so potent? It also raises the stakes on what food and eating can represent in a relationship. On the night of their wedding, for the first and last time both appetites, alimentary and sexual have been satisfied.
Towards the very end of the novel, after Violet’s death, Henry, dying himself, thinks back to the wedding cake incident:
He had never suffered from indigestion until the day after his wedding-night, when he had eaten so immoderately of Elsie’s bride-cake. The bride-cake seemed to have been the determining cause, or perhaps it was merely the occasion, of some change in his system. (p.286)
The symbolic importance is underlined again in the final page, when Elsie, survivor of her master and mistress, muses on their lives:
[S]he held herself responsible for her master’s death. She had noticed that he had never been the same since the orgy of her wedding cake, and she had a terrible suspicion that immoderate wedding-cake caused cancer. Thus she added one more to the uncounted theories of the origin of cancer, and nobody yet knows enough of the subject to be able to disprove Elsie’s theory. (p. 306)
One need hardly draw attention to the use of the word ‘orgy’ there; or the ‘terrible suspicion that immoderate wedding cake [or sex] caused cancer’. Elsie, existing on the near-starvation diet her employers provide, is guilt-ridden over her inability to resist food – she ‘steals’ what Henry refuses; she tries but fails to expiate her sins by abstinence but simply cannot sustain hunger – on one occasion wolfing down uncooked bacon. The opposite of Henry, she recognises and wants to abide by the principles he tries to impose, but her own vitality will not be extinguished. Similarly, her lover Joe sells his ‘sacred’ papers (p. 289) in order to eat: Every man in [Elsie’s] world could, when it came to the point, produce papers of some sort from somewhere – army-discharge, pension documents, testimonials, birth-certificate….No man in Elsie’s world could get far along without papers (p. 289).
Joe sells his identity for four and sixpence and a meal of ‘skilly and cocoa and dry bread’ (p. 292) – and for his survival. But in Henry’s mind food is equivalent to decadence [and desire?]. The couple’s modest lunch – their ‘wedding-breakfast’ – takes place in a café: a ‘magnificent, many-floored, music-enlivened, swarming Lyons’ establishment on Oxford Street’ (p. 89). Henry believes it is ‘relatively cheap’, but he is still worried about the capital outlay:
[B]ut really the bill amounted to a lot of money in the judgement of a man who for years had never spent more than sixpence on a meal outside his own home, and whom the mere appearance of luxury frightened. Throughout the wedding breakfast he had indeed been scared by the gilding, the carving, the seemingly careless profusion, the noise, and the vastness of the throng which flung its money about in futile extravagance; he had been unable to dismiss the disturbing notion that England was decadent, and the structure of English society threatened by a canker similar to the canker which had destroyed Gibbon’s Rome. Ten shilling and sevenpence for a single repast for two persons! It was fantastic. He had resolved that this would be the last pleasure excursion into the West End. (pp. 89-90)
Even in 1919 ten shillings and seven pence is hardly extravagant for a celebration. But the scene in the busy, cheap café becomes for Henry a symbol of all that is wrong with English society. Again the narrative is comic at the expense of his exaggerated over-reaction, but Bennett is never guilty of setting up his character just to mock him – in the historical cultural context of 1919, after the deprivation and rationing of the Great War, there really is something histrionic and troubling about the scene seen from Henry’s point of view. Jules Henry says that psychopathology is ‘the final outcome of all that is wrong with a culture’ (quoted in Bordo 1993, p.139). In this scene, we can see Henry’s ideology coming into contact with that of society at large – while his parsimonious approach to life and food is contained within the fortress of his own place, it is under his control and not dangerous. The catalyst of marriage and his brief foray into the social London world with all its demands on his pocket, presents a serious threat to his autonomy. Not even ‘moderately interested in women’ for a couple of decades, Henry had been ‘absorbed in his secret passion’ (p. 91) – which is money. But – fleetingly – on his honeymoon, he is ‘in full realization of the wonderfulness of being married ….He blossomed slowly, late, but he blossomed’ (p. 91).
Susan Bordo says that ‘the young anorectic, typically, experiences her life as well as her hungers as being out of control’ (1993, p.149). Henry is not a young woman, but in his marriage, his home-life spins out of his control – the vacuum-cleaners his wife hires together with men to operate them divest house and shop alike of years of accumulated dirt and dust. As Susan Bordo emphasizes, ‘Anxieties over women’s uncontrollable hungers appear to peak…during periods when women are becoming independent and asserting themselves politically and socially (1993 p.161). Socially and politically, such an assertion of independence certainly relates to the position of women in 1919, but Violet rapidly becomes a threat in more ways than one. Henry’s anxieties about her appetites surface on their honeymoon day: ‘I could do with a cup of tea. Oh! And there’s jam!’ she exclaims. ‘Henry was shocked. More expense. Must they be eating all day? …. he must either go home or go mad….he must at any cost bear Violet down’ (p. 96). The advancement of women – and Violet is, at least at first, an independent woman – was partly dependent on the First World War and it threatened the patriarchal machinery: in microcosm, Henry is a man under attack.
Refusing food is one way of rejecting the person who offers it, and there are two such significant episodes in this novel. One concerns an egg, the other a piece of steak, both emotionally loaded.
‘Darling, I want you to do something for me, to please me. I know you will’
‘I expect I shall’
‘I want you to eat a good breakfast before you start.’
‘Oh! That!’ he interrupted her negligently. ‘I always eat as much as I want’
‘What’s that?’ demanded Henry with well-acted indifference as he observed an unusual object on the tray.
‘It’s a boiled egg. It’s for you.’
‘But I don’t want an egg. I never eat eggs.’
‘But I want you to eat this one.’ She smiled cajolingly.
Useless! She was asking too much. He would not eat it.
‘It’ll be wasted if you don’t’
It might be; but he would not be the one to waste it. He calmly ate his bread and margarine, and drank his tea.
‘I do think it’s too bad of you Harry. You’re wasting away,’ she protested in a half-broken voice and added with still more emotion, daringly, defiantly: ‘And what’s the use of a husband who doesn’t eat enough, I should like to know?’
A fearful silence. Thunder seemed to rumble menacingly round the horizon; nature itself cowered. Henry blushed slightly, pulling at his beard. Then his voice, quiet, bland, soothing, sweet, inexorable:
…. I eat as much as I want. I’m the only judge of how much I want. We’re all different. My health is quite good.’ (pp.125-6).
Henry blushes at Violet’s reference to sex, but he is immovable. His miserliness with money and his parsimonious attitude to food is matched by his sexual continence: ‘”Steaks!” he thinks in disgust, “Dead flesh! Bodily desires, appetites!”‘ (p.159).
In his article, ‘The Spermatic Economy, a Nineteenth-Century View of Sexuality’, Ben Barker-Benfield (1972) traces what he sees as a persistent masculine anxiety about loss of sperm, ‘together with its concomitant losses of will and order’ (Barker-Benfield 1972 p.49). Part of this anxiety he attributes to the threat posed to male energies by:
woman’s latent boundlessness, and through them, of civilisation. A woman was a sperm absorber, “a drag on the energy, spirits and resolution of her partner”. Moreover, the repression of woman’s sexual feelings represented sexual and social order generally. It demonstrated to man his subordination of his own dangerous but necessary sexual eruptability. Desirous woman represented man’s loss of control over himself. All women were potentially antagonistic to the fundamental value scheme of society. (Barker-Benfield 1972, p.55)
Barker-Benfield is writing about nineteenth-century anxieties, while this novel is set in 1919. However, Bennett himself was born in 1867, and his protagonist is a middle-aged product of Victorian Britain – while, as we have seen, Henry is fearful of contemporary society. His refusal to eat is a rejection of his wife, a means of maintaining order, some form of control, and his sense of identity. It is a self-protective impulse which paradoxically kills him. In the same way that he feels the need to protect his savings from what he sees as Violet’s ravages, he needs to protect himself from sexual desire, from his wife’s invasion – or, paradoxically, penetration – into the fortress of his autonomy and his home, and the only way he can achieve this is by starvation.
Barker-Benfield, Ben (1972). ‘The Spermatic Economy: A Nineteenth Century View of Sexuality’, Feminist Studies Vol.1, No.1, Summer 1972 http://www.jstor.org/stable/3180106 [accessed 02/0802010]
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Bennett, Arnold (1923). Riceyman Steps (Harmondsworth: Penguin)
Bordo, Susan (1993). Unbearable Weight (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press)
Bruch, Hilde, (1979). The Golden Cage (New York: Vintage)
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Ellman, Maud (1993). The Hunger Artists (London: Virago Press)
Grosz, Elizabeth (1994). Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press)
Henry, Jules (1963). Culture Against Man (New York: Alfred A Knopf)
Mendelson, Edward, and Squillave, Robert, eds. (1991). Introduction, in Bennett, Arnold.Riceyman Steps. (Harmondsworth: Penguin)
Schwartz, Hillel (1986). Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies, and Fat (New York: Macmillan)
Woolf, Virginia. (1925) (1999). Mrs Dalloway. (London: Penguin)
Woolf, Virginia (1922) (1950). Jacob’s Room. (London: Mariner Books)