Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennet
The story takes place in 1919–1920, just after the First World War, and is divided into five parts. It deals with the final year in the life of its main character, Henry Earlforward, a miser with a slight limp, who keeps a second-hand bookshop in the Clerkenwell area of London, at Riceyman Steps. Henry harbours a secret passion for Violet Arb, a widow who inherits a neighbouring confectionery shop nearby. When Henry tries to woo Violet, the widow realizes that they share the same charwoman and maid servant in the simple, loyal Elsie Sprickett.
When Elsie’s boyfriend, the shell-shocked war veteran Joe, loses self-control and runs after Violet with a carving-knife at her shop, Henry gallantly intervenes after Violet approaches Henry for help. Violet, who sees in Henry a financially secure future, finally decides to marry him after a short courtship. Joe, meanwhile, disappears after writing a letter to Elsie that he will come for her when he has recovered from his traumatic disorder.
Henry's parsimony drives the married couple into an increasingly wretched existence. He is aghast, for example, when Violet spends fourteen pounds vacuuming his dusty shop as a wedding present. He begins eating less and less, even forgoing meat for cheese, and refuses to go to the hospital to treat his undernourishment when the doctor and his wife insist that he does. All the while Elsie stands devoted to the couple, despite having problems of her own—she pines secretly for Joe, and pilfers food to binge eat at night.
Their lives—in which Henry’s passion for money and his obstinacy finally consume himself and his wife—are contrasted to that of their loyal maid servant Elsie Sprickett, and it is the latter, despite her extreme poverty, who brings life and a future to the bittersweet tale.