Review: Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson

“Just as the painter Rubens amused himself with being the ambassador to the court of St. James’s – a sufficient career in itself for most busy men – so Mrs. Lucas amused herself, in the intervals of her pursuit of art for art’s sake, with being not only an ambassador but a monarch. Riseholme might perhaps, according to the crude materialism of maps, be included in the kingdom of Great Britain, but in a more real and inward sense it formed a complete kingdom of its own, and its queen was undoubtedly Mrs. Lucas, who ruled it with a secure autocracy pleasant to contemplate at a time when thrones were toppling, and imperial crowns whirling like dead leaves down the autumn winds.”

Of all the books in my back catalogue that I have yet to review, E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia stories have felt by far the most pressing. Although meritorious in their own right, it is not solely Benson’s literary skill that has pushed his creations of satirised English utopia to the top of my review schedule, but rather the central role that the author’s writing has come to play in my own life. Although I had been familiar with the concept of bibliotherapy for some years prior, stumbling upon a recent omnibus of Benson’s stories whilst on a voyage to the library provoked a lengthy reflection on the significant role that literature has played in my own mental health. I’ve made no secret of my struggles – in truth, being able to relate my own encounters with mental illness is integral to the way in which I discuss and advocate bibliotherapy. But I found Benson’s work at a time of truly significant trouble. I had just made the decision to leave the PhD programme that I was six months away from finishing (and turn my back on the career path as a whole), my then-fiancé had returned to the US whilst I waited for an indeterminate amount of time on my visa to join him, and I was unanchored and jobless for the first time in a long while. To shore up the gap between where I was and what I wanted for myself, I turned to the local library for comfort and that is when I stumbled upon E.F. Benson – an author to whom I return at any time of significant distress or personal challenge. With comedic skill that mirrors the humour of P.G Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford – but far exceeding both in narrative depth – the Mapp and Lucia stories are a “parfect” example of what an author can achieve with the subtle (and not-so-subtle) complexities of social warfare in the superficially genteel English countryside.

The Mapp and Lucia stories represent almost two decades of work on the part of their author. Beginning with Queen Lucia in 1920 and Miss Mapp in 1922, it took an additional decade before Benson conceived the idea of uniting the two in his story, Mapp and Lucia. These three pieces of fiction form the core of the Benson’s offerings on the characters and represent the content of the 2014 omnibus, released to parallel the BBC’s adaptation of the work (also titled Mapp and Lucia – this is the omnibus that I will be reviewing here). The reader is first introduced to Mrs. Emmeline Lucas (‘Lucia’) as she whirls at the heart of the quaint Elizabethan town of Riseholme. The town’s social life is comprised of an intriguing chorus of characters, from Lucia’s wavering, toupeed companion, Georgie, to the fad-obsessed Daisy Quantock. For all their personality, however, it is Lucia who beats at the very centre of Riseholme life. Through a combination of musical evenings (or ‘un po’ di musica,’ as she terms it in her less-than-fluent Italian) and ‘cultural’ events, Lucia’s mission is one of thwarting any attempts on her throne – whether Daisy Quantock and the Indian guru that arrives in Riseholme to instruct his pupils in the ways of yoga, or the beautiful opera singer, Olga Bracely. In Miss Mapp, we are introduced to a similar world of social concern, this time in the seaside town of Tilling. Tilling’s charming array of secondary characters – in many respects, better realised than those that occupy Riseholme – operate in a realm of bridge evenings and abbreviated tea sessions, with the uncompromising Miss Elizabeth Mapp as the village’s unrivalled captain. As Mapp schemes to remove obstacles from her social supremacy – and, as she hopes, secure a proposal from the often intoxicated but harmless Major Benjy – Tilling becomes ripe for warfare, and bringing Lucia into the mix is Benson’s chosen recipe for additional mayhem.

“It was very annoying that they had stuck their hooks (so the process represented itself to her vigorous imagery) into Lucia, for Miss Mapp had intended to have no one’s hook there but her own. She wanted to run her, to sponsor her, to arrange little parties for her, and cause Lucia to arrange little parties at her dictation, and, while keeping her in her place, show her off to Tilling. Providence, or whatever less beneficent power ruled the world, had not been considerate of her right to do this, for it was she who had been put to the expense of advertising Mallards in The Times, and it was entirely owing to her that that Lucia had come down here, and wound up that pleasant machine of sub-letting houses, so that everybody scored financially as well as got a change.”

Benson’s decision to bring Mapp and Lucia into collision was an unequivocal stroke of genius. While the characters thrive in their separation, it is in uniting the two via Lucia’s trip to Tilling that Benson demonstrates his impressive grip on the best of British literary humour. Lucia’s arrival in Tilling – a decision taken following the death of her husband, Peppino, and a desire to sub-let Miss Mapp’s house for the summer months – ushers in an era of incredible social chaos for the village’s inhabitants. Mapp’s anticipation of adding a new member to her existing cohort of socially-obedient acquaintances falls flat almost immediately, as Lucia sets about exercising her own attempts to secure herself as the new queen of Tilling. The tug-of-war that takes place as Mapp and Lucia work to wrest control from one another is remarkably entertaining. Callisthenics classes, art shows, and fundraising fetes all play their part in the sublimely savage battle waged over Tilling’s social domain, enjoyed by both the villager’s inhabitants and the book’s riveted readers.

With a peculiar attention to detail, Benson’s work transcends that of those authors that might be thought of as his contemporaries. For as much as Nancy Mitford’s work offers the particular sense of catharsis and comfort that comes with insightfully satirical humour, there is an emptiness to her characters that – while not making her work any the less intelligent – prohibits any real connection for the reader. Reading Wodehouse offers a similar experience. The Mapp and Lucia stories are something altogether different. In Benson’s fictional worlds, place, prose, and character combine to offer a narrative that transcends what one might ordinarily identify as the realm of early twentieth-century comedic fiction. While satire remains that name of the game, there is a joyful willingness to delve into the peculiarities of personality – as paralleled by the strange isolation of the villages of Tilling and Riseholme, that exist as a world unto themselves – that separates Benson’s work. Mapp and Lucia invokes quirks with which we are all familiar – from the hivemind obsession with health fads, to the particular type of social surveillance that comes with communal life – and fleshes them into stories that are both intrinsically human and refreshingly honest.

“At present, so he concluded, Lucia did not mean war. She meant, as by some great armed demonstration, to exhibit the Riseholme spirit in its full panoply, and then crush into dazzled submission any potential rivalry. She meant also to exert an educational influence, for she allowed that Olga had great gifts, and she meant to train and refine those gifts so that they might, when exercised under benign but autocratic supervision, conduce to the strength and splendour of Riseholme.”

Alongside the raging battle that occupies the hearts and minds of Benson’s characters, it is the contrast with the tranquility of the stories’ settings that renders the Mapp and Lucia omnibus so sublimely effective. Whether in the picturesque landscape of Tilling (a place “…of enormous sunsets and rims of blue sea on the horizon”) or the striking Tudor architecture of Riseholme (“…very little short of perfection” and complete with its own set of stocks), Benson never fails to evoke the sense of calm satisfaction and nostalgic peace that might otherwise occlude the social turmoil of these villages. Yet the reader is never far from the whirlwind of activity and derision that exists at the core of Tilling and Riseholme and their social operations. It is a juxtaposition that works incredibly well, giving the sense of an undercurrent of ceaseless energy in these sweet, unassumingly stunning locations. Indeed, the settings themselves are often mobilised for the purposes of the two resident monarchs. Riseholme becomes the site of an Elizabethan fete, inviting a struggle over the person best suited to play the role of Queen Elizabeth to the droves of tourists forecasted to flock in for the event. Tilling’s quaint architecture and the months of summer painting that it invites offers the perfect opportunity for battle over the display of selected artistic representations in the annual art show. Benson manoeuvres his characters with military precision – “I feel like the fourth of August, 1914,” as Georgie appropriately concludes. These stories portray a war over which Benson never loses complete authority, albeit with a sense of playful exploration and indulgence that affords Mapp and Lucia their inexhaustibly joyful tone.

Much as with the perfection of Lucia’s Lobster a la Riseholme – a recipe for which Miss Mapp spends much of Mapp and Lucia scheming to access – the ingredients of Benson’s stories combine to render the most delicious combination of light-hearted strife and believable conflict. The author’s willingness to play in the realm of difficult human emotions – the grief of Lucia losing her beloved husband, the jealousy that accompanies loss of status – with a commitment to the stories’ inoffensive comedic touch elevates Mapp and Lucia beyond any semblance of literary simplicity. They are an exploration of the tensions underlying the superficial gentility of traditional stories about English country life, with an unwavering attention to the humour and quirks that characterise the very best that Britain has to offer in the way of social satire. Benson’s work is unremittingly joyful, truly comforting, and an honest demonstration of what can be achieved when characters are brought together to battle it out over their own flaws and insecurities. Until next time, as per the famous Tillingite goodbye (stolen, we are told, from Lucia and Riseholme), au reservoir!

Mapp and Lucia

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