There was a time when you had to buy the books that made up the Mapp and Lucia sequence separately, which I did, all apart from the last one for some reason. Then omnibus editions began to appear and then cheaper omnibus editions arrived. I recently re-read this version published by Wordsworth which can be picked up for under £2, a real bargain for a good quality 600+ pages. I was quite happy to replace my tatty five paperback novels with this one.
The other day whilst browsing on the Kindle shop on Amazon I discovered that the copyright restrictions must have been lifted as it is available for free. I’ve already mentioned that during this little browse I discovered the Delphi Complete Classic Editions and there is a EF Benson volume which contains a massive 32 novels and countless short stories, his non-fiction and autobiography for the amazing sum of £1.49. Now this collection was not amongst the ten (10!) Delphi Classics I did purchase because I do have a fair bit of still to read Benson on my shelves and I’m not convinced that this, unlike some of the others on offer, is a complete collection. (To be fair, unlike some of the other titles it does not claim to be “complete”) I have some that I couldn’t see in the breakdown of the titles in this collection. I know this is laughable because it would take me a lifetime to get through the 32 novels that are there so why am I quibbling about a couple of titles I couldn’t see? Anyway I left Mr Benson in the Amazon store (for now anyway) particularly because I have the two Wordsworth volumes which do represent his finest work. If, however, you haven’t read the Mapp and Lucia books you might want to consider the e-book versions.
Up until the 1980’s Mapp and Lucia were a bit of an underground classic. This changed with the enchanting Channel 4 production from 1985. The two series made from Benson’s stories are held in great reverence, were filmed in the correct locations and starred Prunella Scales, Geraldine McEwan, and Nigel Hawthorne. Readers began to seek out Benson’s work. (I have seen some of the 1985 version recently and it has dated greatly- the pace was slower than I remembered, it didn’t sparkle quite as much as it did in my head and compared to the standards of British TV Drama production today it looked a little, well, cheap.)
Last Christmas the BBC put on a re-make of 3 episodes starring Miranda Richardson, Anna Chancellor and Steve Pemberton. It was very enjoyable Christmas viewing but obviously did not go down well enough for them to make a series (it did seem to pick and choose a little from the sequence of novels). To date nobody has actually filmed the novels and told the stories in the sequence that Benson produced them. They have tended to focus on the middle novels.
In Volume one you get the first three novels – “Queen Lucia” (1920), “Miss Mapp” and “Lucia In London” (1927). “Queen Lucia” is a laugh-out loud comic novel and a real triumph- it sparkles throughout. Surely Lucia is the blueprint for Hyacinth Bouquet in “Keeping Up Appearances” (in fact in my warped memory banks I did erroneously think I recalled Patricia Routledge playing her in the Channel 4 series). She is a superb creation as is her friend and neighbour, the deliciously camp Georgie. This book fairly skips along as those who live in the village of Riseholme (based on Broadway in Oxfordshire) get swept away with enthusiasms for yoga when a guru comes to stay and are thrilled by the arrival of celebrated opera singer Olga Bracely. It is affectionately written and quite delightful.
As far as I am concerned “Miss Mapp” is not as successful. For this second book of the sequence the action is moved to Tilling (based on Rye, where both TV series were filmed) and we are introduced to a new set of similar characters (alas no Georgie). Miss Mapp is perhaps more monstrous than Lucia and as a result some of the warmth is lost. Two retired gentlemen- Major Flint and Captain Puffin are perceived by Mapp to be vying for her attentions and a duel that never was dominates this book. The pace is slower, the sparkle less effervescent, there’s quite a lot of bridge played, which Benson seems to like to write about, but which does slow things down for the non-bridge playing reader. It is still very enjoyable and ranks up there with a good PG Wodehouse novel but it’s not a match for its predecessor. (Interestingly, I’m not alone in thinking this. Perusing the introduction by Keith Carabine after I read the novels he seems to agree with me).
Lucia once again becomes the focus of “Lucia In London” and this book brings that sparkle back. It does this by having its foot in two camps as Lucia inherits a house in London and moves from her beloved Riseholme to begin soaring up the social ladder of the capital. The rest of the village view this ascent with disdain and busy themselves with spiritualism and opening a museum. Lucia, unsurprisingly, tramples on her old friends on her way up and faces social isolation. Georgie has more of a supporting role to play but is magnificent as is the returning opera diva Olga, who manages to balance running two homes without ostracising anyone. Lucia’s behaviour increasingly makes her a laughing stock in both camps but this is classic comedy and so Georgie and Olga are able to pull her through. Not quite as essential as “Queen Lucia” but a marvellous comic novel nevertheless.
I’ll have a little more to say about Benson himself when I review the second volume of this collection but I hope I have whetted your appetite to discover or rediscover these classic novels from the twenties.
The Complete Mapp & Lucia Volume 1 was published by Wordsworth in 2011. Other versions are available.