Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mrs Ames – E. F. Benson

‘Mrs Ames’ was another of my amazon acquisitions from last month (I’m working through that stack slowly but surely) and I actually read it a few weeks ago but other things have got in the way of writing about it – mostly ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ which absorbed so much attention that it didn’t leave much room for anything else, and ‘Mrs Ames’ deserves proper attention.

I’m very attached to the Mapp and Lucia novels but have had mixed feelings about other Benson that’s come my way, generally I’ve found they lack the ‘classic’ quality which make the Mapp and Lucia books so special to me and many, many, others so I was curious about ‘Mrs Ames’ from the outset – would it be a disappointment, a curiosity, or a proper gem.

Cutting to the chase it’s a proper gem (but I’ll also be taking the scenic route as well). The Bloomsbury group titles continue to intrigue me, the first round of titles included a couple that I already knew and some that came highly recommended (Miss Hargreaves will always be synonymous with Simon stuck-in-a-book for me). This second round has been more of an unknown quantity and it’s also made me realise that I had certain preconceptions about the Bloomsbury titles. I assume they will be light, funny, period pieces – which they so far have been, but there’s so much more going on as well.

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.


  1. This question may be a little disrespectful from a first-time commenter, but am very curious re Mrs Ames' "spur of the moment paddling." Would that be a little light Victorian S&M or a lazy afternoon's punting down Riseborough's sun-dappled waterways?

    Been meaning to re-read my own 1980's copy of this since the reprint's hit the blogosphere....moving it to the top of the TBR now!

    Cheers, from a fan of the blog

  2. I would have choked on my cornflakes reading this, except I don't eat them - so thats okay. Not a bit of light edwardian S&M - although in the continued quest for novelty that makes up Riseborough life it doesn't seem any more unlikely than some of the other things they take to.

    The paddling is the seaside sort, and sounds just as undignified an activity for a middle aged lady to indulge in. Hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.