The back blurb gives the bones of the story but it doesn’t give away much else, so based on a description of Mrs Ames reigning over the social scene of Riseborough until the captivating Mrs Evans catches the eye of both her husband and son made me think this would be a prototype for ‘Mapp and Lucia’ which was enough to make me buy the book.
The first thing that struck me was how definitely pre (first world) war ‘Mrs Ames’ feels. Mapp and Lucia inhabit a busy world that indefinably belongs to the active middle aged; Mrs Ames and her circle are just as middle aged, almost as active and somehow all feel much more redundant – their days are spent in the same round of socialising and gossip but there’s a pervasive lack of purpose; it’s just a way of spending time. Mrs Evans flirtation with Major Ames which ends up threatening social ruin for herself and the destruction of two marriages is born of nothing more or less than boredom. She’s not a deep woman and strong feelings seem to have bypassed her, so the thrill of fancying herself in love – of actually feeling something – is too much for her to resist.
Mrs Ames herself is a fascinating character, short with a face like a toad and a social dictator to boot – yet still I couldn’t help but warm to her. Long past the first flush of youth she still touchingly believes that a bit of rejuvenation by way of a good moisturiser and some (entirely natural of course, and not a dye) hair restorer and some spur of the moment paddling will turn back the clock. Finding her husband has been blinded by the far more obvious attractions of Mrs Evans she casts round for something and finds the suffragette movement.
I can’t tell you how much this excited me – for all my reading from the period I don’t come across much that deals specifically with the suffrage movement so Benson’s take on it in 1912 felt like gold dust. Mrs Ames takes up the movement by way of an autumn diversion not least because she knows it will annoy some of the neighbours. Her attempts at direct action are somewhat ill fated (and very funny) but what’s really noticeable is how the idea takes hold of her. It’s made explicitly clear that it’s the first time she’s really thought about anything – the results are even more intoxicating than Mrs Evans brush with love. Whatever the other results and embarrassments arising from this conversion Mrs Ames finds herself on terms of equality with a new (somewhat lower) spectrum of society. Trades people become people – my feeling is that Benson approved.