Cover art by Natasha Ledwidge for The Folio Society
All I knew about the Mapp and Lucia series of books by E.F. Benson was that they were a kind of comedy of manners in the dry English style (you know how they excel at that sort of thing) and I vaguely suspected that if you attempted to read them when you were too young you wouldn't like them because you wouldn't get it. That's exactly what happened to me. I tried reading about Miss Mapp and Lucia years ago when I first heard about the series, but to to my dismay, I just couldn't get with the program. The rather arch and utterly dry humor passed me by. I mean, nothing much happens in these books, except day to day living, and there are certainly few characters (if any) to warm the cockles of a reader's heart.
Now that I'm a woman of a certain age, I'm ready for Mapp and Lucia - I guess my cockles are warmed enough. What I didn't get then and certainly do now, is that these books are primarily about the style of writing which is delightfully involving and about the creation of a claustrophobic world which the reader can view through a prism while thankfully not having to live there. Benson's style is enchanting in its detail and in his understanding of character and setting. But I suppose Mapp and Lucia are books you have to grow into. I'm now ready to be enchanted.
Oh how I love these books! So declasse of me to show enthusiasm, I know. I'd be poo-pooed out of the village of Riseholme, for sure and definitely out of the village of Tilling. Despite that, I'm having a great deal of fun reading about these two rather intimidatingly impertinent well-to-do women who spend their lives driven to get the better of their equally impertinent and well-to-do neighbors while sniffing their noses and rolling their eyes at the general riffraff.
Both English villages featured in these books are enclaves of festering emotions and gossip, not to mention, snobby social gatherings at which one had better have a very good reason for not attending. A lovely time is had by all even if not too far beneath the surface there roils the ever-present scent of spite and malcontent. Let me say first and foremost, that these are not very pleasant people. Oh, they think they are, these villagers ready to condemn at the drop of an incorrect fork, they are expert at fooling themselves. Never has pretense and self-justification been so adroitly used by so many to excuse so much bad behavior. That's part of the reason you can't really dislike them as much as you might. They think they're nice enough. And after all, it's mostly about manners and social custom - isn't it?
I have four Mapp and Lucia novels (an anthology from the library) which I am gobbling up each evening while stormy snow and ice rage outside. Perfect Mapp and Lucia weather. The novels are: QUEEN LUCIA, MISS MAPP, LUCIA IN LONDON and MAPP AND LUCIA. There are two more awaiting me once I finish: LUCIA'S PROGRESS (published in the USA as THE WORSHIPFUL LUCIA) and TROUBLE FOR LUCIA. Then of course, there's the television series available on DVD. So I expect to be visiting the England of the 20's and 30's for the next few weeks, depending on what other books I can squeeze in between. (I don't want to end my sojourn with Mapp and Lucia too quickly.)
QUEEN LUCIA (1920)
In which we first meet Mrs. Emmeline Lucas aka Lucia walking home from the train station after a brief trip to London - a London which of course she takes pleasure in disdaining. She sends her car on ahead with driver and luggage, knowing that that this will set Riseholme village tongues wagging. Where can Lucia be? Just one of her little tricks.
Lucia derives pleasure from ruffling the waters of her small village. It might even be said that this 'ruffling' is what makes her life worthwhile. She is as self-important and sanctimonious a character as you will ever meet and yet she would deny to the death, that she was either. Prone to innocuous attacks of baby talk (gak!) with her 'second in command', Georgie, her obsequious neighbor, a simpering (but likable) male neighbor who shares Lucia's incipient pretensions and keen eye for putting one over on their neighbors - though in this, it's usually Lucia who leads the way.
"I count it a privilege to be able, in my position, to set an example."
Besides playing Beethoven (only the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata) and bits of Mozart on the piano accompanied by Georgie, Lucia also enjoys the pretentious bantering of a few Italian phrases with her hubby, the erstwhile poet, whom she calls Pepino for no reason that I can see other than the wish to make herself seem...I don't know, overly cultured? Well-traveled? Neither of which she is. (Lucia will get her richly deserved language comeuppance later when she meets someone at a dinner party who actually speaks Italian - come inbarazzante.)
Lucia sees herself as the head of all that is proper, culturally worthwhile and important in her village. She is the acknowledged Queen of Riseholme, a woman who can be gracious to her 'subjects' - until they step out of line.
Not to say that nothing much happens in Riseholme, there will be the hilarious episode of the Guru and the yoga lessons, followed by the invasion of a London fortune teller and the requisite seances, followed by the worldly opera primadonna Olga Bracely who will move to Riseholme and challenge Lucia for supremacy over the village and Georgie. There will be more lies, pretensions and sniping. Fun to be had by all. And though the Queen of Riseholme does get her many richly deserved comeuppances, one can't help but feel sorry for her in a kind of sneering, roundabout way. She is just so deliciously ghastly.
MISS MAPP (1922)
I'm now nearing the end of this second book in the series, which takes place in another of those outwardly calm little enclaves of good manners which England is noted for, this time it's the lovely village of Tilling. Here is where Miss Elizabeth Mapp, a spinster of a certain age and 'a fine figure of a woman' sits at the window of her picturesque cottage with a pair of binoculars watching her neighbors to-ing and fro-ing, speculating what they might be up to. The slightest little shift in the day-to-day is grist for Miss Mapp's perpetual mill. Speculation, surmise and one-upmanship are her life's blood.
But prone to over-doing things, she is not immune to being buffeted about by the vagaries of life. In other words, she too is prone to receiving comeuppances right and left. Comes to mind: the alarming episode of food-hoarding revealed when the secret panel in Miss Mapp's tea room 'pops' open in front of her guests to reveal an avalanche of canned meats, dried apricots, bottles of bovril and bags of flour secreted away in anticipation of a coal strike, and the time her overly enthusiastic curtsy - I'll show them a proper curtsy - in honor of the Prince of Wales (supposedly passing by in a train), causes her to fall on her keester in full view of the neighbors, and then of course there's the outrageously funny incident of the duel between Captain Puffin and Major Benjy, but wait, I'm getting ahead of myself as usual.
The thing is, dear Miss Mapp never learns from these little awkward events. She just shakes herself off and pushes on through completely unaware that her neighbors may be laughing at her for they, in their turn, can be just as badly behaved. There are no heroes here.
These are books which take the art of bitchiness to Olympian heights.
Speaking of raising bitchiness to Olympian heights: I finished LUCIA IN LONDON at 4 a.m. this past morning and am still reeling from the utterly delightful and yes, bitchy genius of it.
Pepino's great aunt has died and left her great nephew a bundle of cash and a house in London. Pepino is Paul Lucas's affectionate (and affected) nick-name as you may know since that is how dear Emmeline aka Lucia refers to her compliant hubby.
So brushing the dust of dear old sweet and muddle-headed Riseholme village from their bespoke shoes, off to London go Lucia and Pepino in their chauffeured limo, servants sent on ahead in preparation. This is the same London which Lucia had been known, in the past, to disdain for its lack of the finer things which Riseholme so amply provided - that sense of peace and contemplation of the higher arts, and so on and so forth. The trip is supposedly a short sojourn while the happy couple decide whether to sell their inheritance or keep both houses open while they swish back and forth. Though truth to tell, Lucia has already made up her mind to cut a dash or make a splash or however that goes, in London. And we know that as her mind goes so goes the...well, you know how that goes.
Will London society welcome her with open arms? What do you think?
But back home in Riseholme there is discontent among Lucia's neighbors left behind in the limo's exhaust. Even Georgie, her obliging neighbor and 'second in command' is not happy with Lucia's 'worldly' behavior. Her eagerness to embrace London and by implication, the London high life which she had in the past sniffed her nose at, is certainly bewildering if not belittling to Riseholme's way of thinking. They are being left behind to fend for themselves, rudderless and clueless.
But thanks to opera primadonna Olga Bracely who has affectionate regard for George's sensibilities and Riseholme gossip and who, by the way, has serendipitously leased a house across from Lucia's London abode in the fashionable enclave of Brompton Square, all is not lost.
For Olga will be the first to invite Georgie to stay in London after Lucia has done nothing but find excuses as to why she can't invite him. In fact she hasn't had time to write or call anyone back in Riseholme except for one letter to Georgie (failing to mention any invite). Yes, dear Lucia has been seduced by the Big City.
On Lucia's first and only trip back to Riseholme after settling in in Brompton Square, she invites several London guests down for a weekend and shamefully ignores her village 'friends'. But, to her chagrin, Georgie and Olga get the better of her in a big way and Lucia's weekend falls terribly flat.
At any rate, this is probably my favorite of the three books I've read so far because Benson does such a brilliant job of laying bare Lucia's character and still, somehow, makes you tolerate her with - dare I say it? - a feeling of affection. Yes, she's dreadful, but still you want to know what happens next. How Benson does this is pure genius as far as I'm concerned.
In fact the high society mucky-mucks Lucia meets in town, the duchesses and marquises and barons and Princesses and at one point, the Prime Minister who invites her to Checquers, his country house, are not immune to Lucia veneration. The keener eyed among them are wise enough to Lucia's rampant social climbing ambitions and snicker at her pretensions but can't help respecting her grit and gumption, her zeal to conquer. They form a club of Luciaphiles to watch over Lucia's frenetic activities, shaking their heads in admiration.
But then nemesis takes a hand in the Lucia sweepstakes and she and Pepino return to Riseholme leaving the high life of London behind. Lucia a tiny bit wiser if unrepentant, bent on taking back the reins of leadership in Riseholme once again.
A fabulous book.
Miss Mapp and Lucia will meet up in the next installment, MAPP AND LUCIA (1931). Who will get the upper hand? What delight awaits me.
If you're not the sort to be intimidated, there's a wonderful Glossary of all things Mapp and Lucia and their world to be had at this link.
I've linked LUCIA IN LONDON to its Project Guttenberg page where it is available for online reading.