Review by Helen N:
I found the book very easy to read. Bennett’s style is straightforward and he paints a vivid picture of the Clerkenwell area of London just after the First World War.
There is a small cast of people: Henry Earlforward, a reclusive and miserly bookseller and Mrs. Violet Arb, a widow, meet and marry but the very characteristics which bring them together both destroy the marriage and each other. The most attractive character in the book is Elsie the maid, who comes to life in great detail. The depiction of the love she has for Joe, the unreliable man in her life, is very touching. The other most important character is the Doctor, Dr Raste, who enters the story as a customer, buying a Collected Works of Shakespeare for his daughter, but also attends both Henry and Violet in what turn out to be their final illnesses.
The book is balanced finely between descriptions of the area, downtrodden, noisy and dirty with traffic and the characters, each of whom is finely drawn. Bennett lovingly exposes the strange discords in their natures : Henry lives in filth and will not pay out to improve his premises, but has a wardrobe full of new, unworn clothes. He and Violet are shown to exchange warm and loving embraces and yet as soon as she is his wife he sets himself to oppose any plans she has to spend money on him; he even refuses to eat.
There is an ominous episode where he takes her existing wedding ring (having filed it off her finger) in order to have a new one made and then sells the old one. Though he gives he money to her, the fact of his making the sale so quickly is unsettling , both to Violet and the reader. Violet gradually realises that theirs is not a marriage of equals but that Henry, armed with a terrifying obstinacy will always win. She becomes ill and the Doctor, who she calls to see Henry who has taken to his bed, refusing to eat, finds out that she is more seriously ill and sends her to Hospital.
Henry is left alone with Elsie but she too cannot alter his determination to refuse food – he is in fact also seriously ill, with cancer.
Elsie, the maid, is not just a servant but a feeling and observing girl with a mind of her own. She is deeply in love with her Joe and as the book progresses she becomes more and more frantic with his absence. When he finally turns up he is ill, he has been in prison and she takes him into the house even though she knows she shouldn’t, because her concern for him overrides her sense of duty to her employers. She has already been driven to steal food and later to borrow the small sum of sixpence from the safe to pay for Henry’s letter to his wife to be delivered to the hospital – she doesn’t want to leave him to deliver it herself. But in spite of these things we are in no doubt that she is an honest and truthful person who will be totally faithful to Joe as long as she lives.
Violet dies in hospital and Henry finally leaving his bed finds Elsie’s note of 6d taken in the safe. This is to him a final betrayal of life, that the maid who nursed him and cared for him, had stolen from him as well is too much to bear and he dies.
When the neighbours, Mr and Mrs Belrose see the lights in the shop still burning they know something is wrong. Mr Belrose discovers Henry collapsed in his chair and upstairs Elsie asleep with Joe who is sick with malaria.
The case is a transient sensation in the Press, a distant relative arrives to inherit the couples’ shop and combined wealth, and Elsie and Joe start a new life together. Elsie has saved enough money to pay the rent on a flat since she feels that if they have independence, she and Joe will survive but at the last moment she is swayed by the Doctor’s daughter who begs her to come and work for her mother and be trained as a cook. Elsie’s ability to change her plans is shown as a strength in her nature and together she and Joe go forward to their future.
I can feel the influence of both Dickens – the more restrained writer of the later books- in the atmosphere of London and the descriptions of the working poor, and Trollope in the delicate and affectionate portraits of women in the story. The very end of the story when Elsie and Joe walk together through the streets of Clerkenwell echos the end of “Little Dorrit” where she and Arthur Clennam are swallowed up in the London crowds.
See also George Simmers’ blog about walking Riceyman Steps in London.