Philip Hensher was born in London in 1965. He is the author of four novels; Other Lulus, Kitchen Venom, Pleasured and The Mulberry Empire. He is a regular broadcaster and has contributed articles and reviews to many publications including the Spectator, the Mail on Sunday and the Independent. In 2003 he was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 'Best of Young British Novelists'.
It is a sad comment on the English nation, no doubt, that it persists in regarding many narratives of humiliation, shame and cruelty as delightful and amusing entertainments, suitable to be given to children. Most English light comedies tell tales as heartbreaking as Madam Butterfly. The two wasted lives of Jeeves and Wooster might be deeply moving: the brain of a Keynes condemned to an existence steaming spats, shackled to a man terrified of anyone resembling a grown-up. You can imagine what Gogol would have done with that. How horrible and poignant the Pooters might seem in a rational light, living out their days under the total contempt of everyone they ever meet, including their own family. If you thought about the cast of Vile Bodies, Love in a Cold Climate or even The Pickwick Papers as if they were real people living real lives, you would probably break down in tears of pity. Alas, however, we don't. They are deplorably funny books.
E.F. 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, which are basically stories about revenge, spite and ruthless ambition; books, however, whose unrelentingly negative view of human nature and delight in the most refined cruelty results in an atmosphere of sunny cheerfulness and exuberant amusement. Orwell said that you couldn't explain to a foreigner why the Jeeves and Wooster books are not indictments of an outdated feudalism. Similarly, when the characters in Mapp and Lucia take some elaborate revenge, or are horribly humiliated in their turn, as all of them sooner or later are, it would be difficult to say quite why your laughter is untinged with pity, or, still stranger, why even at their worst-behaved, his characters never stop being lovable.
The pleasure of Mapp and Lucia is summed up, surely, in Alice Roosevelt's bon mot. "If you have nothing good to say about anybody,"she is supposed to have said, "come and sit right by me." This sordid and unforgiving tale of unfulfilled bourgeois life in the English provinces portrays characters of quite monstrous selfishness and cruelty, devoted to humiliating each other in public, telling lies, and compensating in heartbreaking ways for the frustrations and narrowness of their lives. Lucia herself is monstrously selfish, snobbish, ruthless, wildly affected, prone to absurd fads and vain.
Considering that nobody in Mapp and Lucia has anything at all to do all day long, they exist in a condition of extraordinary haste. They “hurry home”; they “bustle back”; they “slant across the street...making a beeline...”; they “dart” and “scuttle” and “scamper”. What is all this hurry in aid of? Why, to carry the latest despatches from the war. “War” may seem a strong word, but it seems quite reasonable to the inhabitants of Tilling; fey Georgie gloriously says at one moment “I feel like the fourth of August, 1914.” Novels establish their own scale of drama; when Jane Austen's Emma tells Miss Bates on Box Hill how boring she is, it has roughly the same catastrophic quality as the battle of Waterloo in Vanity Fair. And we, too, believe in the life-and-death struggle for power in a small country town, fought over games of bridge and tea parties.
It is a war between Miss Elizabeth Mapp, a long-time resident of Tilling, and a newcomer, Mrs Emmeline Lucas, or Lucia. Miss Mapp, before Lucia's arrival, was the undoubted queen of local society. Mean, bossy, and pinching in her household arrangements, her tyrannical position over Tilling is more tenuous than she knows, resting on nagging and the undisputed primacy of her house. When Lucia arrives, renting the house for the summer, it is very quickly clear that here is someone who can run rings around poor Mapp. Subsequently, Mapp may win minor skirmishes in the vicious social struggle: Lucia, unfailingly, wins every major battle, and yet Mapp limps on from humiliation to humiliation.
Lucia, really, is not much less ghastly than Mapp. She is an unspeakable snob, an egotist and a bully, uses her thin smatterings of music, literature and foreign languages entirely for the purposes of showing off, and almost entirely without a sense of humour. Nevertheless, she wins every battle with Mapp, and we always hope that Quaint Irene will be proved right when she predicts that “that old witch will get what for”. “As usual,” Georgie reflects at one point, “Lucia had come out on top.” What she does have, in inexhaustible amounts, is energy, which is always immensely attractive – “lovable energy”, as the padre has it in his premature obsequies, or “full of pep and pop and vim”, as someone else puts it. Mapp is mean-minded and frequently vindictive; Lucia's ambitions are exercised on a much larger scale, and she never stoops to revenge, is always sickeningly magnanimous. In the end, we love her because she is a radiator, where Mapp is a drain. She is one of those characters, like Jane Austen's Mrs Elton - another addict of Italian - whom everyone secretly loves for their energy.
Although Lucia's superiority over Mapp is somehow sealed by her being a widow rather than a spinster, it's one of E.F.Benson's most brilliant strokes to make it clear that she has absolutely no interest in sex. After all, you have to have sex with someone else; and Lucia hardly notices whether anyone else is even in the room. Similarly, what would be the point of Lucia learning Italian properly? She doesn't have much interest in holding a conversation with anyone else even in English.
Quite how Lucia contrives such overwhelming victories over Mapp is an interesting question, and it's worth looking at her first major triumph to see how she does it. In chapter 5, Mapp's habit of snooping around her rented house is foiled by a clasp on the front door, and in the subsequent conversation, protesting about Lucia holding a vast fete in her garden, is comprehensively routed. How does Lucia do it? The reason is, surely, that Mapp fails to pick her battles. There is no reason on earth for her to sneak into her house, and once she has broken the clasp, Lucia can bring off the following rather brilliant coup;
'“The fete itself, dear one” [Mapp] said, “is what I must speak about. I cannot possibly permit it to take place in my garden...And how do I know that they will not steal upstairs and filch what they can find?”
“There will be no admission to the rooms in the house,” [Lucia] said. “I will lock all the doors, and I am sure that nobody in Tilling will be so ill bred as to attempt to force them open.”’
Mapp, surely, has a point in not wanting a general fete to be held in her house by her tenant, but she has allowed Lucia to bring off a showy double, complimenting the good manners of the town and insulting her directly. Within a page or two, Lucia is transforming her opponent's position until she is made to feel that she has suggested that the fete should include a menagerie of wild animals, and is proposing to tell Lucia who she may or may not invite round for tea. The splendid stroke is that, immediately afterwards, Mapp goes round to take it out on poor Diva, as a bullied child goes home and kicks the dog, and starts using Lucia's exact ripostes on her, where they make no sense whatsoever. The reason Lucia always wins is that she picks her battles very carefully, and waits until exactly the right moment. Over the fete, the affair of the returned pictures, or the stolen recipe for Lobster a la Riseholme, she carefully preserves the appearance of great magnanimity, and then ruthlessly strikes. Mapp, on the other hand, is always being assaulted by her own mean-minded chickens, coming home to roost; always having to force down her own revolting marrow jam over tea.
Mapp and Lucia are only part of it, of course, and they are surrounded by an enchanting cast of one-note grotesques, their wavering and periodically disloyal troops. Glorious as they are, most of them only do one thing; Mr Wyse is always bowing, Susan is forever coming up the road in the Rolls in her sable, the padre is always speaking in a sort of Scotch and his wife never says anything, merely squeaks. (To be strictly accurate, she does very occasionally say something, but only ever as reported speech, as if she can't quite be heard). Even Georgie, the Major and Quaint Irene, who are a little more varied in their habits, run along very clear grooves, doing pretty well exactly the same thing from one end of the novel to the other. They may surprise each other – “No!” is their favourite exclamation - but they don't surprise us, and we know that at any moment, Georgie is doing his needlework, Quaint Irene is painting some naked models while a six-foot maid brings in the refreshments, and the Major is calling “Quai-hai!”. All change is quite superficial, and order is very soon restored.
Rationally, it ought to grow dull, but it doesn't; one could watch Mr Wyse bowing for ever. The enchantment of the unchanging simplicity is in the way it seems almost to reduce us to children, for whom grown-ups, once glimpsed, have their characters defined forever. I remember, for instance, when I was very young, being shouted at by a neighbour of my grandmother's for bouncing a ball off his car; a month later, he came round for a cup of tea when we happened to be there, and I was astonished that, in fact, he didn't shout at everybody all the time. The sunny quality of the novel, surely, is down to the unchanging simplicity of the characters. Just as Waugh said about P.G.Wodehouse, when nothing ever changes and nothing ever will, there is a sense of a lost paradise. Benson's Tilling, Wodehouse's Blandings Castle, even the Grossmiths' suburban villa have a little touch of the Garden of Eden, where monstrous behaviour is safely contained by our knowledge that nothing here will ever really alter.
The language is demonically intense throughout: “innumerable crises might still arise, volcanoes smoked, thunder-clouds threated, there were hostile and malignant forces to be thwarted”; the town “boiled and seethed with excitements”; a character is “an early bird feeding on the worms of affliction”. People cry out, scream, shudder, rush, mount “counter-attacks” and “manoeuvres”, plan “campaigns” in their “Napoleonic brains,” are “rent with pangs of jealousy”. Sometimes, it sounds as extreme as Mrs Radcliffe. But we always know that these are not real dangers, and indeed the source of much enjoyment, however extreme the language; at one crisis, we are told that “the tension next day grew very pleasant”. And when a real danger arises, and Mapp and Lucia's lives threatened, there is no real horror there either, because we know that they will be safe, and in the end have an interesting experience. To put it like that makes Benson sound trivial, but there is an insight about Mapp and Lucia, as well as charm and amusement; these people, entering with such passion and intensity into the smallest details of their lives, find themselves very well equipped to deal with any situation when it arises. Of course Lucia behaved very well when swept out to sea: someone who could wrest the role of Queen Elizabeth from Daisy Quantock against all odds could, if required, have led a cavalry charge.
E.F. Benson was an extraordinary member of an extraordinary family. His father was a very prominent figure in late Victorian England, both as headmaster of Wellington College and subsequently as Archbishop of Canterbury. Somehow, this respectable man produced a ripely eccentric brood of six children. All except the eldest, who died young, were prolific authors; none married; and all, it is plausibly thought, were homosexual or lesbian. Benson was a specifically late-Victorian type, the sportsman as aesthete; some of his novels indulge themselves in Wagnerian sehnsucht on the subject of cricket matches, and he represented England at figure-skating competitions in youth. He lived much of his life in Rye, in Sussex, in Henry James's old house, immortalizing it as Tilling in the Mapp and Lucia books and serving three times as its mayor. The town returned, and continues to return its devotion; a casual visitor to the town, even now, may easily leave with the impression that its more literary residents are prouder of Benson than of Henry James.
Benson was a very prolific writer, and despite his image as a Edwardian gentleman-of-letters, was an efficient professional, turning out biographies, novels, plays and more miscellaneous offerings in very large numbers. Though the Mapp and Lucia novels are his best-known works now, his admirable and ingenious ghost stories are still read, and probably rank in merit only slightly behind those of M.R. James in that delightful Edwardian genre. Further investigation of the vast Benson oeuvre always turns up something with a powerful period atmosphere, if not often a great work of literature. He is very much the sort of writer in whose name people found societies and put on fancy dress; and once or twice, such as in Mapp and Lucia, his facility looks very much like true inspiration.
They are essentially Edwardian books in tone and confidence, though published long afterwards; though occasional later fads turn up, such as sunbathing, Quaint Irene's cocktails, and bridge, the whole atmosphere comes from the long Edwardian summer. It still seems immensely daring, in a subsequent book in the series, for Lucia to take to bicycling; a fad, surely, of the 1890s rather than the 1930s. The spectre of the Great War is nowhere felt - it is amazing that Georgie even knows about August 1914. In reality, men like Georgie were destroyed by shell-shock; women like Mapp were robbed of any chance of marriage; and men very like the Major sent men very much like Cadman the chauffeur to their deaths. Edwardian light literature, on the other hand, revelled and delighted in malice, cruelty, and sheer horror. The ghost stories of M.R. James, the short stories of Saki, the macabre rhymes of Harry Graham lightly evoke horror and beastliness, secure from any real possibility of harm. Mapp and Lucia, too, loves malice, and sees it in the end as harmless, contained and even enjoyable. It is the last breath of the Edwardian; the last moment, perhaps, when it seemed as if nothing could ever come to harm.
Mapp and Lucia
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