EF Benson, Mapp and Lucia

E.F. Benson, Mapp and Lucia. PMC 2004. First published 1935

I need a long preamble for this post.

This year I became a tour guide at Truro Cathedral. To prepare, I had to do a lot of research so that I could come across as well-informed about the building – its history, Gothic revival design, its artefacts, and so on. It was the first newly built cathedral to be completed in England since Salisbury in the thirteenth century; work on it started soon after the diocese of Truro was established in the late 1870s.

Edward White Benson was consecrated its first bishop in 1877 (he went on to become installed as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883, a position he held until his death in 1896). While a student at Cambridge he became so interested in the spirit world and the supernatural that he co-founded a ghost society there in 1851. Years later this interest had obviously not waned: Henry James in his notebooks (Jan. 12, 1895) recorded the outline sketch (HJ tended to call these données) of a story told him by Benson, by then the Archbishop of Canterbury, at Addington, his archiepiscopal residence, two days earlier, that clearly gave him the germ of an idea for The Turn of the Screw – which was published in Collier’s Weekly in 1898.

The same notebooks also show that he socialised with two of Benson’s more famous sons: one was Arthur Christopher (1862-1925, published as A.C. Benson), who became Master of Magdalen College, Oxford. He wrote the lyrics to the Elgar song ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (1902), much loved by jingoistic fogies of the type who go on to become morally corrupt prime ministers and senior members of the British government (the most egregiously despicable of whom, I’m delighted to say as I draft this, is on his way out). His literary output included essays, memoirs, lit crit, and (influenced perhaps by his father) ghost stories.

EF Benson Mapp and Lucia cover The other was Edward Frederic (E.F.) Benson (1867-1940), whose literary output included memoirs, biographies, short stories (he too dabbled in ghost stories; I’ve read a few of these – they’re not exceptional, in the MR James mode), and novels. The Mapp and Lucia series – six novels and a couple of short stories – are perhaps his best-known works. Adaptations of some of them have been adapted for TV drama in the 1980s and more recently. I didn’t watch them at the time, assuming they were a genre of lightweight, sub-Wodehouse upper-middle-class snobbery-posing-as-comedy. Having read Mapp and Lucia, the fourth in the novel sequence, that opinion has been confirmed.

Coincidentally, E.F. lived for many years in Lamb House, Rye (in Sussex, on the English south coast), where Henry James had lived from 1897 to 1914. His brother Arthur was also a tenant there for a time, and so was the author Rumer Godden.

Benson based Lucia’s holiday town, Tilling, on Rye, and her character was probably based on the wife of the local golf course secretary, with whom HJ was also socially acquainted during his time there: like Lucia she was an accomplished pianist and self-appointed leader of the town’s musical life.

The plot of Mapp and Lucia is pretty frothy, but well enough done, if you like that sort of thing (I can’t say I do: this was a duty read). Recently widowed Emmeline Lucas, who prefers to be known (with characteristic pretension) as Lucia by her friends, needs a change of scene from sleepy Riseholme. Her self-imposed purdah has become tedious, and other women are trying to supplant her as queen bee of village society. It would be unbecoming for her to resort to her usual tactics of subversion and bullying to restore herself to the prominence she assumes she deserves, as she had made such a ‘stunt’ of her role of ostentatiously grieving widow.

So she rents Mallards, a huge Queen Anne house in Tilling (and based on Lamb House, with its fine garden room), from Mrs Mapp. She wants change, ‘to get roused up again and shaken and made to tick.’ That gives an idea of the dialogue; it’s not really very witty, is it? She veers between that kind of thirties vernacular, stilted and affectedly snobbish high culture references – she poses as a connoisseur of literature and art as well as music – and toe-curling baby-talk with her camp neighbour and friend, Georgie.

None of these people works for a living. Lucia travels in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. A rivalry quickly develops between Mrs Mapp, who’d been the Lucia of her town until her nemesis arrived, and her new tenant. Each indulges in all kinds of devious tricks, low cunning and downright nastiness to try to gain the upper hand over the other, and social dominance in this community of eccentrics.

Philip Hensher sums all this up well in his introduction:

E.F. Benson’s rather remarkable achievement is to have written a series of books which hardly contain one single generous or kind action, with a cast of characters with hardly one redeeming quality between them, which are basically stories about revenge, spite and ruthless ambition.

Spot on. I can’t concur with his next statement, however, that all this ‘refined cruelty’ results in ‘an atmosphere of cheerfulness and exuberant amusement.’ All I got from this rather nasty novel is the cruelty and snobbish rivalry. There is a certain period charm, but I admit to finding the egotistical antics of Lucia, with her affectation of culture and sophistication (part of the plot involves her fear of being exposed by an Italian speaker of knowing nothing of the language she pretends to be fluent in), left me cold.

Another plot strand deals with her friend Georgie’s despair when his servant announces she’s to marry Lucia’s chauffeur. Who will cosset and pamper him now? He might even have to make his own tea! Poor man.

Fairly disastrous individuals: Javier Marías, Written Lives

Javier Marías, Written Lives. Penguin Modern Classics, 2016. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. First published in Spain as Vidas escritas, 2000; US, New Directions, 2006

‘Writers are monsters’, said Hilary Mantel in her introduction to Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel (the VMC edition) – which I made the title of my post about that novel. Many of the 26 writers that Javier Marías includes in this idiosyncratic collection would readily fall into that category.

Mostly it’s best to read Written Lives as a collection of short stories – as the author hints we should in his characteristically witty Prologue to this PMC edition (and his regular translator, Margaret Jull Costa, deserves immense credit for her deft, elegant translation):

The idea, then, was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, singling out interesting ‘snippets’ from their lives; this may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.

All of his subjects, he points out, were ‘fairly disastrous individuals’. His brief portraits – most are about five pages long – are a willed rejection, that is, of the usual solemn ‘hagiography’ usually found in full-length biographies, he suggests. He approaches his subjects with ‘a mixture of affection and humour.’

Marías Written Lives

Isak Dinesen subsisted on oysters and champagne, as this cover photo shows 

And that’s the key to reading this collection. Marías warns us of the ‘lack of seriousness’ in his texts. This is not intended to be an objective work of scholarship.

For example, that Henry James never forgave Flaubert for receiving the Master and Turgenev in his dressing gown – an outrage for which James never forgave him – is probably taken from Ford Madox Ford’s unreliable testimony, as Philip Hensher pointed out in his review of the 2006 edition of this book (see the end of this post).

Nothing in these sketches has been ‘invented’, Marías disingenuously claims in the Prologue, but it’s in ‘what is included and what omitted that the possible accuracy or inaccuracy of these pieces partly lies.’ And although nothing is ‘fictitious’, some ‘episodes and anecdotes’ have been ‘embellished’.

In case we miss the sly wink behind these words, he goes on to advise the ‘suspicous reader who wants to check some fact’ that he appends an impressively lengthy bibliography as a (surely ironic) attempt to provide an aura of academic authenticity to the portraits – that are transparently cobbled together from a range of such sources, but with more of an eye for entertaining anecdotes than for factual veracity. It’s really a work of fiction – and as such, hugely entertaining.

Largely because of the sly humour. To Malcolm Lowry Marías awards the dubious accolade of

the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature, which is no mean feat, given the intense competition in the field.

Animals don’t fare too well. The paranoid drunk Lowry, we’re told, once took exception to a horse pulling a cart as he passed by because it gave what he took to be a ‘derisive snort’ – even the beasts were conspiring against him. His response was ‘to punch the horse so hard below the ear that the horse quivered and sank to its knees’ – the horse recovered, but Lowry suffered acute remorse for weeks afterwards.

As he did when, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men (is that where he got the story?), he inadvertently broke the neck of a pet rabbit that he was stroking on his lap, watched by the owner and owner’s mother. Like all the best comic writers, Marías is able to risk an outrageous step further after such a moment; he adds

For two days, he wandered the streets of London carrying the corpse, not knowing what to do with it and consumed by self-loathing, until…the waiter in a bar agreed to provide what promised to be a funeral as ordained by the God of all animals.

There are countless such moments of deliciously nasty insights into these…well, semi-fictitious portraits. Like Conrad, who ‘lived in a permanent state of extreme tension’; such was his uncontrollable ‘irritability’ that whenever he dropped his pen, instead of simply picking it up and carrying on writing,

he would spend several minutes exasperatedly drumming his fingers on the desk as if bemoaning what had occurred.

Conan Doyle, when he was about to become a practising doctor, once thrashed a bully who’d kicked a woman – he was an accomplished boxer, and prone to getting into brawls. The next day the man showed up at his surgery, his first patient. Fortunately he didn’t recognise his doctor.

This is what Marías says about Rilke:

It is not known what he liked, as regards food or other things, apart from the letter “y” – which he wrote whenever he could – as well, of course, as travelling and women.

This post is already becoming too long, but I must mention a trait of Marías’ inimitable style and approach that I’ve discussed in previous posts about his novels, and is also present to comic effect in Written Lives: his habit of judiciously, wryly moving from a detailed particular into a generalising aphorism of spurious portentousness: of Isak Dinesen he says that her philandering husband was the twin brother of the man she had loved from girlhood,

and bonds formed through a third party are perhaps the most difficult to break.

RL Stevenson was

undoubtedly chivalrous, but not excessively so, or rather, he was simply chivalrous enough, for every true gentleman has behaved like a scoundrel at least once in his life.

This volume includes a section of even briefer accounts of notable women (not all of them writers). Like Lowry, the quick-tempered Emily Bronte is said to have punched an animal that had caused her disgruntlement, with similarly dolorous effect (for the dog).

A final section gives Marías’ interpration of photo portraits of writers. These again are surely not intended to be read as serious, but are prompts for some good jokes – for example, he says that in his picture, Nietzsche wears an overcoat ‘that looks as if it had been lent to him by some much burlier relative.’

Philip Hensher’s review of the 2006 edition finds the book inaccurate, rather pointless and embarrassing; he’s also po-facedly critical of the wayward observations Marías offers in that final section, and offers this one of his own about the dustjacket photo of Marías in that edition; it’s just as good as those by the King of Redonda:

Given all of this, it is almost more than you could ask of a reviewer not to comment on the portrait of Marías himself on the dustjacket. Well, he has narrowed his eyes in a way which conventionally indicates sceptical intelligence; his hair could do with some attention (impossible genius); he is holding a burnt-down cigarette like a prop or a trophy, like a non-smoking actress in a revival of Hay Fever. He looks, slightly appallingly, like an author having his photograph taken.