Mapp and Lucia

In which I review Mapp and Lucia, E. F. Benson’s 1931 comic novel about two women vying for social supremacy in a small Sussex town.

What it’s about: Sussex, England, the 1920s. The wealthy widow Emmeline Lucas takes a holiday rental in Tilling, a seaside town in Sussex, accompanied by her effete bachelor friend Georgie Pillson. Lucia’s landlady, Miss Elizabeth Mapp, imagines herself the social leader of Tilling, though her attempts to pry into Lucia’s business are quickly rebuffed. Lucia hosts a successful summer fête despite Elizabeth’s objections, and ingratiates herself to the local eccentrics of Tilling: Diva Plaistow, the village gossip; Major Benjy Flint, a hard-drinking veteran of the Indian Army; Algernon and Susan Wyse, who drive a Rolls-Royce and mention Susan’s OBE at every opportunity; “Quaint” Irene Coles, a plain-speaking tomboy who paints portraits of naked female wrestlers; and the Rev Bartlett, a native of Birmingham who affects a Scotch accent.  Furious at being upstaged, Elizabeth attempts to ruin Lucia’s reputation with a number of schemes which invariably backfire, bolstering Lucia’s popularity while corroding her own. Lucia relocates permanently to Tilling, buying a seafront property on the outskirts of town, while George takes a long lease of a cottage in Tilling. Elizabeth visits Lucia’s home with the intention of stealing her celebrated recipe for “Lobster à la Riseholme”, but is caught by Lucia. A storm floods the house, leaving them stranded on the kitchen table, which floats out to sea. Several months later, they return to Tilling, having been rescued by an Italian fishing vessel, to find that a memorial has been erected in their honour. Elizabeth decides to marry Major Benjy, largely in the hope of trumping Lucia’s social status, and serves a version of Lucia’s lobster recipe at her wedding breakfast.

Why it’s a classic: Mapp and Lucia was the fourth of E F Benson’s novels involving the characters of Miss Mapp and Lucia, but the first time in which both characters were brought together.

Lucia, Georgie and Daisy Quantock were introduced in two novels, Queen Lucia and Lucia in London. Benson reputedly based Lucia on the popular Edwardian novelist Marie Corelli, who pretended to speak Italian, talked baby-talk with men, held piano concerts, and dominated society in her home of Stratford-upon-Avon. In Miss Mapp, he introduced Elizabeth and the residents of Tilling, based on Rye in East Sussex where Benson lived and served as mayor for six years. Mallards was based on his home at Lamb House (a former residence of Henry James), and his Tilling stories were inspired by observing the ladies of Rye doing their shopping in the High Street, “carrying large market baskets, and bumping into each other in narrow doorways, and talking in a very animated manner.”

Quiet, polite, discreetly gay and a lifelong bachelor, Benson’s alter ego is most probably Georgie, though unlike his character he also had an adventurous, athletic side: in his younger days, he represented England at figure skating (not gay at all, obviously) and took regular holidays in Capri with his friend John Ellingham Brooks, the one-time lover of W. Somerset Maugham.

While Benson’s literary output was prodigious – he wrote novels, short stories, social history, literary biographies and works for children – but it’s the Mapp and Lucia novels for which he’s now best known. Literary critic Robert Kiernan argues that Mapp and Lucia is Benson’s finest novel, largely because the two women “have worthy competition for the first time.” Their battle for social supremacy “is so generally equitable, on the other hand, that neither can sustain an advantage… In pitting [them] against each other, Benson provided each woman with a new world to conquer but at the same time increased the difficulties in her way.” Benson’s contemporary fans included Nancy Mitford, Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and W H Auden, who were quoted as saying “We will pay anything for Lucia books”.

The novels have never been out of print, and had a surge in popularity in the 1980s after a hugely successful TV adaptation for Channel 4, dramatised by Gerald Savory and starring Geraldine McEwan and Lucia, Prunella Scales as Mapp and Nigel Hawthorne as Georgie. The series has become something of a camp classic, especially among gay men (more on them later), with besotted fans offering their suggested recipes for Lobster à la Riseholme. Another adaptation by the BBC in 2014, starring Anna Chancellor as Lucia, Miranda Richardson as Mapp and Steve Pemberton as Georgie, was appreciatively received but paled in comparison with the 1980s series, though further boosted Benson’s sales.

Critic Iain Finlayson speculated that while “part of [Benson] would regret that his more substantial, more seriously-intended work has been overlooked” in favour of the “frivolous” Mapp and Lucia stories, “he would possibly regard the breeze of fashion, blowing across his most memorable creations, as a friendly wind.”

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet of flowers and fig leaves from Miss Mapp’s giardino segreto, though only after checking that they’re included in the rent.

Someone much cleverer than me once said that if you want to understand a country’s national character, you need only look at its comedy, and in particular its targets of satire. Mapp and Lucia is in some ways the quintessentially English novel, with its snobbish class-obsessed characters and their petty rivalries, humiliations and treacherous behaviour, all seething beneath a veneer of polite respectability. The novelist Philip Hensher writes (in his Introduction to the 2004 Penguin Classics edition of Mapp and Lucia) that 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 single redeeming quality between them” who nonetheless “never stop being loveable.”

The Mapp and Lucia novels form a link in a chain of English comic writing stretching from Jane Austen and Henry Fielding through to Benson’s contemporaries P. G. Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh – though like Austen, his focus is the life of the provincial middle classes rather than the dissolute lives of aristocrats in country estates or the wild London parties of Bright Young Things.

This provincialism is, I think, one of Mapp and Lucia‘s chief attractions. Though the stories are set in the 1920s, complete with motor cars, telephones and references to Freud (who Lucia keeps meaning to read but never quite manages), its mood and sensibility is straight from the Edwardian era – or at least, a romanticised sanitised version of English country life that so many English readers and writers rush to nostalgise. Though Georgie mentions the “Great War”, there’s no trace of the devastation of World War I. In Tilling and Riseholme, teacups may rattle and curtains may be peered through, but otherwise, order reigns. God’s in his heaven and very much a man, Britannia rules the waves, the British Empire remains battered into submission thanks to the likes of Major Benjy, the servants are well-behaved and know their place, and all nasty influences of modern life – industrialisation, trade unions and the welfare state – are still decades away.

Benson’s only concession to what we now think of as progressive values is that Tilling is largely ruled by women, who, as Lucia notes, “have got their majors and their padres completely under their thumbs.” Georgie, too, knows that “it was useless to protest when Lucia got that loud, inspired, gabbling ring in her voice; she would cut through any opposition, as a steam saw buzzes through the most solid oak board till, amid a fountain of flying sawdust, it has sliced its way.”

Within this environment of benign conservatism, Benson has great fun with his matriarchs and their relentless ambitions. Since no one works for a living and no one’s health, wealth or livelihoods are ever seriously affected, what remains is a politely-waged war for social supremacy. Somehow, the lack of urgency to Mapp and Lucia’s rivalry makes their battles more pleasurable – the stakes are so low that little more is damaged than a few egos and a few uneaten figs. In this sense, Mapp and Lucia particularly recalls Austen’s Emma and its cast of provincial characters – especially Mrs Elton, the memorably awful social climber who also purports to speak Italian.

Benson also reminds us that the township is all the happier for witnessing their conflict. “There was little partisanship; it was the sporting instinct which looked forward to witnessing an engagement between two well-equipped Queens,” Benson tells us. “Tilling did not want to witness a demonstration of forgiveness or white feathers but a combat without quarter.” It’s a particular joy to watch the shifting loyalties of Diva, the most fairweather friend in all of English literature. Initially delighted by Lucia’s squashing of Mapp, she takes equal pleasure in seeing Lucia sink after the failure of her po di mu, and asks Mapp to tell her “intimate things about Lucia” after their return from sea. Diva represents a particular type of passive-aggressive Englishness that loves to support the underdog while slapping down others who are too successful. What a wonderful tabloid journalist she would have made.

If Lucia had read Freud, she might have learned about “the vanity of small differences” – the truism that we dislike no one quite so much as our nearest neighbour. What makes Mapp and Lucia so brilliantly funny is their unawareness of their own triviality, and the extreme seriousness with which they wage their war. For Mapp, especially, every moment matters, and Benson has great fun using the language of battle to describe her. “[I]nnumerable crises might still arise“, we are told, “volcanos smoked, thunder-clouds threatened, there were hostile and malignant forces to be thwarted“. Mapp and Lucia both mount “counter-attacks“, “fresh manoeuvres“, “fierce boxing” and “campaigns” planned in their “Napoleonic brains“.

As Kiernan argues, the two women are evenly matched, but Benson takes care to distinguish their very different styles, thereby giving us a clue to explaining why Lucia invariably comes out on top. Mapp is a bar room brawler: secretive, suspicious and not above a bit of “sharp” practice (that’s English for “deceit”) to get her way. She’s a canny opportunist, deciding on the fly to charge Lucia fifteen guineas rather than twelve to rent Mallards, and turning what was meant to be a conciliatory visit to Grebe into a crime caper to steal Lucia’s recipe. “Defiance and hatred warmed her blood most pleasantly“, we are told, and like the best Bond villains, she refuses to concede defeat. Even when put in her place by Lucia, she concludes “No one could go on being grateful indefinitely. You were grateful until you had paid your debt of gratitude, and then you were free.” This is the kind of moral relativism only practised by sociopaths – Lucia says at one stage “Sometimes I think she is a little mad” – and one wonders what might have happened if Mapp’s energies had been directed into politics.

By contrast, Lucia’s modus operandi is largely one of benevolence, tolerance and a love of good fun. Her wealth allows her more largesse to be generous, but mostly she wins because she’s charming, complimentary to her friends and knows how to throw a good party. Like all good war strategists, she’s an expert at reading the room and capitalising on her opponent’s failures. When Mapp greedily overcharges for Mallards and doesn’t include garden produce, Lucia responds by making the garden available to the entire town for a charity fête. When Mapp rejects Lucia and Georgie’s paintings, Lucia coolly displays them for the Wyses to see, embarrassing Mapp into paying for a drawing she once tried to sell. Whereas Mapp always lunges for the jugular, Lucia knows how to wait, only playing her hand when it can achieve the most damaging effect. I don’t mean to suggest Benson has a moral programme here – we’re meant to find Lucia as ridiculous as Mapp – but as Oscar Wilde once said, “In matters of grave importance, style not substance is the crucial thing.”

Benson’s prose style doesn’t have quite the same sharpness or effervescence as Waugh or Mitford, and his one-liners are disappointingly thin on the ground (though I did like Georgie saying of Mapp, “I remember the name, because she was rather globular, like a map of the world“). The comedy comes from his adeptness at sustain the see-sawing shift of power between the two rivals. Rather than sparkling bon mots, he prefers slow-burn jokes like Lucia and Georgie’s pretentious Italian expressions, an affectation that comes to boiling point when the Countess comes to town. At times, one wishes Benson had engaged a better sub-editor: more than once he makes a joke in the third-person narrative, only to have one of the characters repeat the punchline a few lines later.

Miss Mapp observes “a sort of mocking note about quaint Irene’s conversation…. It was full of hints and awkward allusions; it bristles with hidden menace.” So too does Benson’s prose, which is satisfyingly arch, with a distinctly queer sensibility that’s made it something of a camp classic. The most obvious points of interest for a queer readership are the effeminate Georgie, fussing with his bibelots and needlework and fond of wearing capes even when he’s not playing Sir Walter Raleigh, or Quaint Irene, the mannish artist whose house is named Taormina (Benson’s much-loved gay holiday retreat) and seems to nurse a crush on Lucia. Benson never quite came to the point and outed his characters – he was writing in the 1930s, after all – but they’re affectionately drawn, and read as characters rather than clichés.

It’s not just the pansy and the dyke who are weird. There’s a lingering nervousness around sex of any description that renders all the characters deeply strange. It’s noteworthy that everyone is childless, and babies and children are almost entirely absent from the narrative. Lucia and Georgie’s chaste but loving friendship, with its baby-talk and overwrought musical performances (“Uno, due… tre!” Lucia trills) is one of the first depictions in English fiction of straight-gay friendship, though without the charge of danger that’s in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories or Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. The 1985 series has great fun with the camp elements of the dialogue, especially Geraldine McEwan who plays Lucia with a theatrical flourish that’s almost a form of drag.

If you were a po-faced Socialist, you’d probably regret that Benson and his warring provincial ladies had ever come into existence. It’s a particularly strange experience reading Mapp and Lucia in post-Brexit Britain. So much of the small-mindedness, snobbery and xenophobia that characterised the Brexit campaign appears here as harmless eccentricity, which we now know isn’t the case. “No true Tillingite was ever really happy away from her town,” Benson tells us. “foreigners were very queer untrustworthy people.” Benson was enough of a satirist to make fun of this attitude while pointing out how commonly held it was. As Mapp and Lucia shows us, the real monsters and the truly queer live in small provincial towns, even though their author was happy enough to live among them.

Despite its time and place setting and very English passive-aggressive humour, Mapp and Lucia works because the characters he created are universal. Everyone knows a Lucia or a Miss Map, vying for control of their reading group, parent-teacher association, or sports club. (I was once a member of a gay choir, with an organising committee composed entirely of Lucias, one of whom trilled “Au reservoir!” whenever he left the room). Unfashionable though Benson may now be with the wokesters, Mapp and Lucia is the perfect comfort reading for a long and cold winter – and for those with a more critical eye, it’s an excellent primer on the utter awfulness of being English.

Quotable Quote: “To those not acquainted with the usage of the ladies of Tilling, such bitter plain-speaking might seem to denote a serious friction between old friends. But neither Elizabeth nor Diva had any such feeling: they would both have been highly surprised if an impartial listener had imagined anything so absurd. Such breezes, even if they grew far stronger than this, were no more than bracing airs that disposed to energy, or exercises to keep the mind fit. No malice.”





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