Reading comments here and in my online reading group it seems that the world is cleanly divided in to those who have read E.F Benson’s greatest creations and those who haven’t. Honestly it slightly surprised me that Benson had managed to slip under the radar of so many likeminded readers until I tried to remember how I came across him.
This was a process of elimination rather than a feat of memory – I know I read all the Mapp and Lucia books when I was about sixteen so I was either attracted by the covers on a bookshop foray or found one amongst my stepmothers books (she and a partner ran a small hotel at the time – their combined books for public consumption formed a fairly eclectic mix with lots of gems and lots of oddities). It’s also a process that reminds me that there are classics and then there are Classics. My Bensons are the Black Swan imprints from the late eighties – basically when I started reading them so I guess I was lucky to pick them up when they were easily available – a happy serendipity.
Because (I thought) I had the whole series at my disposal I seldom gave it much thought that Benson had all but disappeared from high street bookshops, my process of discovery followed by instant reading gratification after a quick visit to the high street isn’t currently possible which makes me curious as to why Benson is out of favour. He’s still in print after a fashion and with any luck The Bloomsbury Groups reprint of 'Mrs Ames'’ later this year will rekindle interest, but I still don’t understand why interest in classic Benson waned when he’s every bit as wonderful as writers who have remained available on the shelves of all good bookshops.
So – ‘Miss Mapp’, for those of you who don’t yet know one of the most brilliant villainesses in literature; a mean, conniving, spiteful, bullying, gossip obsessed social dictator who rules her social circle with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Frequently the glove comes off as she puts down any attempts to rest the crown from her head but its velvet all the way when she’s found out in some social misdemeanour. I love Mapp for the same reason friends can’t do without her; she’s maddening but she does make life more interesting.
I did wonder when I picked up ‘Miss Mapp’ what I would make of it after such a long time but as far as I can tell my response now is much the same as it was twenty years ago when I first discovered her – the jokes are funny because they’re repeated so many times, the fascination lies in watching a situation unfold and resolve. You could say that not a lot happens, but what actually happens is a form of everyday life and it’s packed full of scandal and interest as well as the more mundane matters of settling bills and saving money whilst keeping up appearances. I think it stays fresh because the situations are so recognisable. I loved the books when I was at school because heaven knows school is a carefully ordered social hierarchy – I love them now because the only thing that’s changed is that I’ve met more Mapps.
For all of you who said you had any of the Mapp and Lucia books but haven’t yet read them get them off the to be read pile dust them down and start reading without delay, you can thank me for the push later.