In the manner of a dog with a bone I’m sticking with E F Benson – just in case nobody picked up on how good I think he is... 'Mapp and Lucia' is probably my favourite from the series, its number four of six and everything about it (in my opinion) is perfect.
It’s all a question of balance - Lucia is an arch snob and social climber – a woman of extraordinary energy and determination with a passion for organising others (entirely for their own good of course), in short she’s a benevolent dictator as compared to Miss Mapp who is altogether less benevolent although every bit as dictatorial. The action opens with widowed Lucia beginning to come out of mourning and looking for new challenges. New challenges take her to Miss Mapp’s Tilling, indeed right into Miss Mapp’s house which she rents for the summer and where she proceeds to usurp Miss Mapp’s social crown. The battle lines are drawn.
For the rest of the Tillingates life has never been as exciting – a whirl of competing social events and withering put downs as Mapp sinks to new lows in her attempts to exact revenge and Lucia pushes her luck as she tries to organise the town to within an inch of its life. Mapp is horrendous but human – in our less pleasant moments we must all have a little Miss Mapp in us so it’s possible to sympathise with her, especially as Lucia frustrates her again and again.
As for Lucia she’s a wonderful creation but even better compared to Miss Mapp – it throws into relief her better qualities without entirely hiding her less endearing foibles. Like the Tillingates I want Lucia to win, but not without a battle - without Mapp to take up some of her energies who knows what she might have organised the community into. Fortunately she’s distracted by the need to outmanoeuvre her nemesis who tries everything to catch Lucia out – the light aluminium opera glasses are taken to the top of the church tower for a little surveillance, desirable recipe’s are purloined, tables are set sail on, and one poor soul is entrapped into marriage. In short it’s all go.
I’m impressed that Benson rights women so well – and intrigued at how marginal the men are to the action. In truth men are peripheral to ‘Society’ it’s wives and womenfolk who run it, deciding who’s acceptable and who’s not quite ‘quite’, men can escape to the golf course or the club (or the pub) but tea parties, bridge evenings, dinner parties, lunches and suppers are the preserve of the ladies in this leisured world. Even so the men here could almost not exist at all – it makes me curious about Benson’s background in a half heartedly Freudian way – specifically I would love to know more about the important/influential women in his life.
Vague psychological speculations aside this is a polished jewel of a book – it’s not a bad place to start with the Mapp and Lucia books, It’s the one I would most want to rescue in a fire and is about to be added to my list of books I wish everyone would read. I think it can easily stand alone and if you fall for it you can work back through the first three than forward for the last two (as a matter of interest who minds where they start in a series – do you have to begin at the beginning or are you happy to jump in wherever?).