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.

Recent events – and a grumpy gull

We’ve just said goodbye to our two English grandchildren, who came for their first visit in over a year. We hadn’t seen them since last August, so it was lovely to be together again. Lockdown restrictions eased recently, meaning we could start meeting other people indoors again. The weather was finally summery, and we were able to go to the beach. Mrs TD and the kids’ mum, who came for the final two days, went for a swim, joined by the 12-year-old granddaughter, but the water was a bit too cold for me.

Last week we paid our first social visit since before Christmas. Our friends who live nearby, the owners of those fine cats Iggy and Phoebe (they’ve featured a few times in the blog), invited us for coffee and cake. It was such a relief to mix with other people indoors, relax and enjoy stimulating conversation.

We admired their artworks, in particular a strange, vividly coloured crucifixion scene. They told us the artist was a Scot, Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009). They explained that the little dog looking up at the Christ figure, who returned its gaze, was the artist’s much loved Bedlington terrier. He features in many of his works, they told us.

Craigie Aitchison mural treeWe took the grandchildren to Truro cathedral during the week to seek out the four Aitchison murals our friends told us were to be seen there. The style is very distinctive, with vibrant bands of colour and stark, strangely mystical images of the crucifixion scene.

This first one appears to be a tree, perhaps the one that provided the timber for the cross on which the crucifixion took place.

To its left is the first of the scenes depicting Christ on the cross. The same vivid bands of colour form the basis of the image. At the foot of Craigie Aitchison mural cross and dogthe cross, instead of the usual human figures (mourners, soldiers), the little dog walks up to it, perky ears raised. The Christ figure appears to hang from one limp arm on the crossbeam, head bowed.

Next to this is the first image of the Christ figure looking straight out at the viewer. The dog now looks lovingly up at him. A star shines brightly in the sky above, and streaks of light or energy emanate from the figure on the cross. A blue bird – presumably symbolising the holy spirit, perches companionably next to the figure’s left hand.

Craigie Aitchison mural crucifixion

The mural on the far left of the four panels is a sort of mirror image of the first. This time the Christ figure’s right arm hangs over the crossbeam. The dog is no longer present.

Craigie Aitchison mural far leftI’m not sure how to read all the imagery, but each picture glows with a quiet energy. Despite the painful iconography, the simplicity and…I don’t know…charm of the scenes leaves me with a sense of happiness and hope. I’m not a Christian, but I can respond to the serenity of these images.

Grumpy gull FalmouthAfter our trip to the beach, we took the children to Falmouth docks, where we hoped to see the Estonian cruise ship that’s to be the floating hotel for some of the hundreds of extra police officers being brought in to police the area for the G7 conference. This takes place next week in Carbis Bay, near St Ives. The ship wasn’t there, but I liked the grumpy expression of this seagull perched on the railings above the docks.

Buttercup fieldWhen the children had left for home with our daughter yesterday we went for one of our local walks. Here to end this post is a view of the horses’ field that’s featured in previous posts, now a mass of shimmering yellow buttercups, with pink clover among them. A circling buzzard overhead isn’t discernible in my picture, but it’s good to know it was there, keeping an eye on things below. Despite the rather hazy focus, I hope it’s still possible to see the beauty of nature.

Back to books next time (probably).

 

 

 

More ramblings, a viaduct and holy well

During our recent walks Mrs TD and I have commented on the birdsong, which seems louder than we’ve ever heard it. Maybe it’s our imagination, or else it’s because there’s so little interference from other sounds like road traffic and aircraft. We’d been disappointed not to see more wildlife in our rural ramblings, until the other day. As we walked down a country lane, a deer leapt from the wooded hill beside it, dashed across the road right in front of us, and into the field on the other side. Seconds later another followed, its hoofs clattering on the tarmac.

This horse's two friends were camera shy

This horse’s two friends were camera shy

They looked like adult female red deer: no antlers, but quite large. They darted away so quickly I didn’t have time to take out my phone to take a picture. But what a delightful sight.

The horses in a field were less remarkable, but just as handsome.

Nearer to home is this viaduct. It Carvedras viaductcarries the railway lines across the valley just outside Truro station. It’s called Carvedras viaduct, after the old name for this part of the city, where once there was a Dominican friary (more on this in a minute).

The original viaduct before 1902. By Unknown author – A postcard in the Geof Sheppard Collection, Public Domain

The Plymouth-Truro line was opened in 1859 as a single broad-gauge track (2.14m) for goods vehicles. The 70-mile route traversed numerous deep valleys which required the construction of 42 viaducts. The engineer Brunel recommended the use of wooden fan supports braced on masonry piers to keep costs down. Replacement of these with all-masonry piers began in the 1870s, as it became apparent that this had been a false economy: the annual maintenance of the timber structures was very expensive.

In most cases the new piers were built alongside the old ones. As you can see in my pictures, the original Brunel stumps of piers are clearly visible beside the newer, late-Victorian ones that carry the lines today. The old single-track line began to be replaced from the late 1880s with two standard-gauge lines (for most of the route, but not all). These renovations and replacements weren’t completed for decades.

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opened in 1902, the replacement Carvedras viaduct is 26m high, 295m long, and has 15 piers. Truro is a city established at the confluence of three rivers and valleys (which is perhaps where its original name in Cornish comes from), and the first viaduct the railway crosses as it approaches the city is even more spectacular, the longest of all 42.

These viaducts are impressive feats of engineering, and have a cathedral-like grace and beauty. Jackdaws and seagulls are very fond of them as places to congregate, perch and watch the world go by.

We can see Carvedras from our back door, with the cathedral beyond.

We can see Carvedras viaduct from our back door, with the cathedral beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St Dominic's Well Carvedras houseSt Dominic’s Holy Well is cited in a number of sources, online and in print, as located in the front garden of Carvedras House, beneath the viaduct of the same name. I was able to get this (not very clear) picture by leaning over the front wall. According to Wikipedia it was built in the 17C, but was presumably restored from a much earlier site that had been located in the grounds of St Dominic’s Friary, said to have stood in the grounds of Carvedras Manor. The friary was established in the 13C:

It was an important missionary centre with a church and chapter house. It is known that at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 the Friary had a Prior and ten friars.

One of the annoying consequences of the current situation is that the local library is closed, and I’ve been unable to research this topic beyond the limited resources available online. Maybe once this crisis is over I’ll return to this subject and add some detail. For example, I don’t know what Carvedras signifies in Cornish; ‘car’ is fort, but I have no idea what ‘vedras’ means.

Mrs TD's sourdough loavesHere to finish today’s CV19 update is a gratuitous picture of some delicious sourdough bread Mrs TD baked. It should cost a fortune to buy at the baker’s: it took her a week just to produce the starter culture (if that’s what it’s called).

Other good things are coming out of this sad time. On my morning walk the other day I passed a house with a tray of lovely fresh cauliflowers outside, and a sign saying: Please take one – free. And a hand-drawn picture of a rainbow, with the people in Britain are displaying as a symbol of hope and solidarity.

And here’s a glorious tree in blossom that we passed on this morning’s walk.

Tree in blossom

Snow, lobster, Lothar

This week Cornwall experienced its first serious snowfall in some years. Siberian winds blew in fiercely from the east, caused by atmospheric shifts over the Arctic (nothing to do with global warming, I’m sure). Later in the week storm Emma moved up from the south, full of dampness, and more snow ensued.

This was the blizzard-like scene on Wednesday:

Truro snow

Normally i can see Truro Cathedral from this back door; now screened by the icy blast

Truro snow

Birds struggled to keep warm and sustained; my feeders in the back garden were thronged right through the storms

I know there are plenty of countries where much harsher winter conditions are common; I once visited my late friend Mike in Finland and the sea was frozen!

But here, where the prevailing winds come mild and damp from the southwest, across the Atlantic, and our Cornish coasts are kept temperate by the warm Gulf Stream, we rarely see this kind of weather.

It looked beautiful, though of course it caused all kinds of problems for people who needed to travel or try to get to work. Our staff and students were sent home to keep safe. So a couple of bonus days of reading…

By Saturday the snow had gone and the temperature returned to normal.  was able to go into town with Mrs TD. At the wonderful Fal Catch unit in the covered market we bought fish and prawns for our Keralan curry that night.

 

Truro snow

This was the scene down the road on Thursday: no cars, just families out sledging

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the tanks were several live lobster – all fairly normal in size. I asked the proprietor about the monster crustacean they’d had in the same tank before Christmas: he was huge. Had they sold him? He told me the lobster must have been 60 years old, and no, they hadn’t sold him by Christmas Eve. So he and his partner took him with them to the pub, had a pint, then drove home and released the lucky chap into the sea off Pendennis Point. I just hope he’s learned his lesson and evades the traps in future.

Lobster

Image via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in town I did a few chores and browsed a couple of charity bookshops. In one I came across this: an author new to me, but I so liked the cover and the summary of the text that I had to buy it. Anyone reading this know it? He was born in Brünn, now Brno in the Czech Republic in 1890 and died in Vienna in 1974. He was a writer, theatre director and producer. Here’s the cover:

Lothar Vienna Melody cover

A handsome Europa Editions cover