It occurs to me that the superior minds who compile lists of the great books of the world lack a certain sense of humour. Otherwise, why would P. G. Wodehouse rate only a single entry in my edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die? Why would Stephen Leacock not be included? James Thurber, generally considered the finest humorist of the 20th Century, gets in with his fantasy novel, The 13 Clocks, but not for the extremely funny My Life and Hard Times. And yes, Evelyn Waugh rates a page for Decline and Fall, but I personally think Black Mischief is funnier.
There are exceptions: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is a parody of the romanticised novels of rural life popularized by D. H. Lawrence and Mary Webb. And Catch-22 was a funny book and an even funnier film. But these are exceptions. For the most part, literary critics maintain a traditional skepticism of the comic genre.
Which is why one of the most productive and prolific writers of the last century is given very short shrift, if he’s given any shrift at all. Edward Frederic Benson (1867-1940), who wrote as E. F. Benson, published more than 100 books in his lifetime. They included biographies, ghost stories, plays, and short stories, but he’s best known for the marvelous Mapp and Lucia series of novels which have been reprinted several times and were twice adapted for television. The books, which begin in 1920 with the publication of Queen Lucia, detail the internecine warfare between two formidable middle-aged women, each determined to rule as the social doyenne of her English country town. The women are heartlessly ambitious, ridiculously pretentious, and absolutely unforgettable and when, in the fourth novel, they eventually are brought into close contact, the battle for power knows no bounds. It’s garden parties and bridge evenings at 30 paces, and no prisoners taken.
To give you an overview, if you’re new to the Tilling series (as they’re generally called), Mrs. Emmeline Lucas lives in the small fictional town of Riseholme, just a short train ride out of London. She is never called Emmeline – because she’s married to Mr. Lucas, and because they pride themselves on their ability to speak a smattering of pidgin Italian, she is always referred to as La Lucia. Or, if we’re being less formal, just Lucia. And her husband, Philip, is always called Peppino. In his earlier life, Mr. Lucas worked in banking; once he’d amassed his fortune he and Lucia retired to The Hurst, where he writes – and self-publishes – his poems, and she dominates the social landscape. Her aide-de-camp is Georgie Pillson, her perpetually boyish and perpetually single neighbour believed by all to be madly in love with her. The truth is, of course, that he is not, and neither is she, but it serves their purpose to keep the notion alive. Sex, by the way, never rears its ugly head in any of these books. We assume that Georgie is as celibate as the riven snow and Lucia, happily childless, prefers the life of the mind.
Sometime between the third and fourth book, her beloved Peppino dies and Lucia goes into deep – and fashionable – mourning, only to find that her neighbour Daisy Quantock has taken over the arrangements for the Elizabethan fête that she, Lucia, originally planned. Unwilling to hang around while Daisy runs things, Lucia, accompanied by the ever faithful Georgie, decides to rent a house for the summer in the seaside town of Tilling. The house is owned by Elizabeth Mapp who has, until Lucia’s arrival, been the undisputed queen bee of Tilling. Mapp is at first delighted to have Lucia stay at Mallards, as she believes it will enhance her social standing. However, as Lucia establishes herself as the town’s social maven, and makes the decision to reside there permanently, Mapp’s status deteriorates. Her attempts to regain the upper hand, and Lucia’s strategems to prevent it – aided and abetted by Georgie – keep you enthralled to the not-so-bitter end.
It’s pretty much accepted that Tilling stands in for the town of Rye, East Sussex; Benson lived there for many years and served as the town’s mayor from 1934. Mallards, the home of Miss Mapp, is based on his own home, Lamb House, which had previously been owned by Henry James. It’s an enclave of wealth and privilege, which Benson knew well, and, like the world of Bertie Wooster, it is rendered so delightfully you can’t help but wish it were real.
The final book in the series, published in 1939, is called Trouble for Lucia. In it, Lucia learns to ride a bicycle and becomes the Mayor of Tilling; Miss Mapp is appointed her Mayoress. If the series continued, I have no doubt Lucia would, at the very least, have married a prince of the realm, but alas! Benson contracted throat cancer and died in 1940.
If I were still living in England I would join the Friends of Tilling, a group formed in order to organise annual Gatherings which “bring together all Mapp & Lucia devotees to revel in the world of Tilling and remember the life of its creator E. F. Benson”. The Gatherings are held in Rye; the next one is Saturday 3rd September 2022. Book now!