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.