The theme for this year’s World Book Night which took place on 23rd April was Books To Make You Smile, which is something we could all do with after the year we have had. Normally, there would be many public events taking place in libraries and other establishments to get people reading. Of course, these could not take place. My friend and colleague Louise and myself, who both work for Isle Of Wight Libraries decided to produce a Book Chat to discuss books which have made us smile. This can be found here. Just click on the link and Enjoy!
Yesterday a friend and regular commenter on this blog site sent me some pictures she had taken of Rye in East Sussex. This charming little town has been on my mind recently because of the recently published book by Helen Simonson “The Summer Before The War” and EF Benson who both lived and set his most famous novels there. It was lovely to see the pictures and it got me thinking once again about Benson and his Mapp and Lucia stories- so it was time to dig out the second volume of the Wordsworth Classics Editions which contains, at a bargain price, the remaining three novels of the series “Mapp and Lucia”, “Lucia’s Progress” and “Trouble For Lucia”.
After the first three novels Benson must have tired of his creations for a while as there was an eight year gap between the publication of “Lucia In London” and the first novel in this volume. His wizard wheeze in re-activating these stories was to pair up his two formidable creations. Fans of the television adaptations may very well be surprised that these two only meet up in the fourth novel of the sequence. Up until this point I had preferred the characters in Lucia’s Riseholme (based on Broadway in Oxfordshire) to Mapp’s Tilling (based in Rye) but Benson obviously did not feel this way as Riseholme is the main setting only for the first novel although it does feature as a secondary location in others including this.
In “Mapp And Lucia” (1935), Lucia and then Georgie decide they need a break from Riseholme and Lucia rents Mapp’s cottage in Tilling. Lucia has become widowed in the gap between the novels and life at Riseholme has become drab. Tilling provides her with the opportunity to re-assert herself in a new social circle, one which has hitherto been dominated by Miss Mapp. Cue much tension between the two. Most of the time Lucia manages to outwit Mapp as the two plot and plan their way around various social gatherings. I did find this novel to be a little on the over-long side and the pace dips when compared to “Queen Lucia”. It is often funny, however, and the last third is extremely memorable as Benson takes the unusual step of having the two heroines swept out to sea during a flood, perched on an upside-down kitchen table. They are missing and presumed dead for months. It is a brave move as the readers do not know what has happened to them but get to relish Mapp and Lucia’s friends’ reaction to their demise before they show up again (I’m not plot spoiling- you know there are another two in the series) to bring the book to a satisfactory and memorable conclusion. This is my third favourite of the series so far (behind “Queen Lucia” and “Lucia In London”).
My fourth favourite out of the first five is “Lucia’s Progress” for which there was obviously a demand as it was also published in 1935. In this book Lucia makes a fortune on the Stock Exchange inspiring the residents of Tilling to follow her lead. She manoeuvres the now married Mapp out of her home with the two women swapping houses. She discovers “Roman artefacts” in her garden. Georgie has shingles and has to grow a beard. Mapp is believed to be pregnant and uses this to her advantage. Lucia becomes a benefactor to all of Tilling and disappointingly, as I feared it would damage his characterisation in the next book gets married to Georgie. There’s quite a bit of re-jigging in this book as if Benson is getting them into position for the next (and last) in the series. It isn’t quite as funny and doesn’t sparkle as much as some of the earlier novels.
His 1939 publication “Trouble For Lucia” ends his nineteen year sequence of the six novels and for me eases into fourth place ahead of “Lucia’s Progress” and “Miss Mapp”. In this Lucia needs to find a mayoress and the female residents of Tilling scramble to apply for the role, the wonderful Olga Braceley returns in a somewhat minor role and Lucia and Georgie revisit Riseholme. Lucia aspires to befriend a Duchess and for a while all the plotting gets the better of her and she actually manages to squeeze out a couple of tears as things do not go to plan and she begins to lose face. Georgie’s a bit sidelined and a new character Miss Leg, an author who writes as Rudolph Da Vinci, is introduced without making the impact of some of the much more rounded established characters. It was quite good to see that the playing of Bridge did not have such a dominant role as this as Benson’s love for the details of the card game has had a tendency to slow things down at times in others in the sequence.
For those who find that these six novels are not enough Guy Fraser-Sampson who has written the recently published and reviewed “Death In Profile” (link) has reactivated the series in novels such as “Au Reservoir” and “Lucia on Holiday” (haven’t read these yet).
E F Benson (1867-1940) was a prolific writer who produced over 60 more novels apart from his “Mapp and Lucia”sequence and numerous collections of short stories are available. Sitting on my shelf I have a compendium of his horror stories “Night Shivers” as well as a biography of his childhood by Rodney Bolt focusing on his mother “The Impossible Life Of Mary Benson” as well as a non-fiction work “As We Were: A Victorian Peepshow”. I have noticed that Amazon have a Benson collection in e-book form as part of the Delphi Classics, but I am trying to keep away from that as I have too many of the Delphi Classics series already and probably enough unread Benson on my shelves for the time being. (although I’ve looked just again and its currently £1.49 for 32 novels and many short stories- how long will I be able to resist?).
The Complete Mapp & Lucia Volume 2 was published by Wordsworth in 2011. Other versions are available.
From the author of “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” comes this tale set just before the outbreak of World War I and during the first few months of the conflict. Located mostly in Rye in East Sussex the inescapable comparisons are going to be E F Benson’s “Mapp & Lucia” novels and there is, at times, more than a hint of this as well as a good dollop of PG Wodehouse- style writing. There’s also a loose nod to one of Rye’s most famous inhabitants, Henry James, with man of letters Mr Tillingham, an American literary giant who is living amongst them. (Another nod to Benson as Tilling is his name for Rye in his novels).
Beatrice Nash arrives in town in the early summer to prepare for work as the Latin teacher at the Grammar school. She finds out that her appointment was made only through the intervention of the women on the Board of Governors, as a man would have been preferred. One of these women, Agatha Kent, takes her under her wing and Beatrice is introduced to Agatha’s two nephews, surgeon-in-training Hugh and poet-in-waiting Daniel. There’s a good feel of small-town life as the storm clouds of war amass: plots to keep Beatrice in her post, social gatherings and fetes and when Belgian refugees arrive in the town the townsfolk’s “charitable” notions once again remind this reader of EF Benson. The prospect of war, however, gives a darker edge, as there’s training and enlisting going on around the social gatherings and unsurprisingly, when war does break out and we move with some of the characters to the battleground the tone shifts.
There is a mix throughout between the heightened comedy of manners which evokes Mapp & Lucia and Wodehouse and more realistic writing which can at times seem as if Simonson is struggling to find her voice for the piece, but this also does have the effect of making it unpredictable and very enjoyable. I think I was expecting something more nostalgic and gentler from the title but by leading the characters into combat this cannot be so. Even the good people of Rye have to drop social conventions and petty squabbles at time of war and I think this comes across well. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read and I’m sure it will gain many fans.
The Summer Before The War is published by Bloomsbury on 24th March 2016. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance copy.
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.