Reviewed by Karen Langley
In his time, E.F. Benson was a prolific writer of many different types of fiction, but nowadays he is best remember for his much-loved stories about Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas (Lucia). Benson was born in 1867, son of the then Archbishop of Canterbury and produced an astonishing number of novels (around 100, apparently!) as well as biographies, autobiographies and very popular ghost stories. By his death in 1940 he had been Mayor of Rye and left a substantial body of work behind him.
However, it is his series of six books, which cover the cattiness, social struggles and domestic dramas of the two title ladies, which are remembered most and which remain popular today. The fourth in the sequence, simply called Mapp and Lucia, is often regarded as the high point, bringing as it does this formidable pair together. Although the ladies have crossed paths in previous books, the latter have been more about the individual escapades of either Mapp or Lucia. In this one, however, the ladies lock horns and social battle ensues!
Back in the 1980s, I first stumbled across this wonderful series thanks to an excellent LWT TV adaptation, starring Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales (left). The production was so brilliantly done that I fell in love with the characters and settings straight away, and was delighted to find, when I read the books, how faithful it was to them. Revisiting Mapp and Lucia recently I wasn’t disappointed, finding it as much of a joy as it was on my first reading.
The book opens with a recently widowed Lucia contemplating returning to the social fray in her native Riseholme. Used to being the queen bee par excellence, she is unhappy about rival Daisy Quantock playing Elizabeth I in the local pageant and watching her machinations is a joy. But after her triumph she is a little jaded and decides she needs a change, sweeping off to the little seaside town of Tilling, with her loyal acolyte Georgie in tow, and renting Mapp’s house for the summer.
All kinds of social shenanigans follow, with the two protagonists vying for supremacy. There are some marvellous subplots involving art competitions, lobster recipes, musical evenings and a very complex scheme of sub-letting houses! A constant stream of social gatherings ensues where the two protagonists fight it out, in the most ladylike fashion. But high drama at the end brings about a spectacular denouement which if you didn’t know it was coming would perhaps be a little unexpected…
Re-reading the book, it’s easy to fall in love with Mapp and Lucia and their friends and their adventures all over again. Benson’s writing is so wonderful – sparkling, witty, clever, readable; and he nails his characters perfectly. They are appalling people in many ways – snobbish, cliquey, bitchy and nosey – and yet the reader can’t help loving them. Lucia, of course, is magnificent; clever, forceful, imperious and determined always to get her own way. Mapp is her counterpart; equally determined to control the social events of Tilling, but mean-spirited, dishonest and sneaky. Georgie is a camp delight, with his painting, embroidery, loyalty to Lucia and dependence on his wonderful retainer Foljambe. The Tillingites, ranging from Diva Plaistow through Major Benjy to Quaint Irene are just a delight.
Musing on why we love these characters so much, I think with Lucia it’s because she is always true to herself, with a sweeping vision – although she may bully the others, she’s trying to do something big and epic. It will, of course, always reflect well on her, but nevertheless it’s always spectacular. Mapp, however, is much more parochial and stoops to much lower levels than Lucia. She’s used to being the top dog in Tilling and finds it almost impossible to accept that Lucia will outwit her every time. Seeing them duel is a real delight!
There are, of course, many editions of Benson’s books available, and now a new one is being issued by Hesperus Press; one of their lovely French-flapped volumes with a striking cover. It might be thought that we don’t really need yet another one, but this is being put out to tie in with the latest TV adaptation from the BBC (above), and it’s certainly preferable to my original 1980s one which gave away crucial plot devices on the cover. Instead, we get the usual high quality of design and print from Hesperus, and I think the cover looks lovely!
As for Mapp and Lucia on TV – well, the production qualities of the LWT 1980s adaptation were splendid, McEwan’s frocks were glorious and there was lots of lovely outside location filming in Rye (upon which Tilling was based). The two lead actresses were perfectly chosen, capturing completely the characters of Mapp and Lucia, and I think the BBC will be hard pressed to improve on the LWT version. Whether they succeed will up to viewers to decide; however, if the new adaptation means that more people read E.F. Benson’s wonderful book and go on to explore his other work, that can’t be bad!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and longs for a cottage by the sea.
E.F. Benson, Mapp and Lucia (Hesperus Press: London, 2014). 9781843915461, 311pp, paperback.