Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mapp and Lucia and E.F. Benson

Much like with The Fountain Overflows, the covers of the most recent editions of E.F. Benson's Lucia books makes them look really boring so I won't be using them. Instead, I will be illustrating this post with Edward Gorey drawings. He never illustrated the Lucia books, but he was influenced by them and should have.

E.F. Benson is the sort of fiction writer that doesn't really exist anymore. He started off writing serious, historical novels that didn't go anywhere (and are reportedly dreadful), and then went on to write dark and witty indictments of high society, then many, many short stories in pretty much every genre imaginable. Of particular note are his ghost stories, which are still heavily anthologized and pretty easy to find. He also wrote mysteries, horror, adventure stories, comic pieces, satire and crime stories. He wrote volumes of history, too.

But, what Benson is most remembered for now are his six Lucia books. Most importantly: they are hilarious. They stand as the only books that have ever made me well and truly miss my subway stop - and they did it twice. I think the first time it happened was when I was reading about the "duel" in Miss Mapp, and the second time was when Captain Puffin drowns in his soup. But more on that later.

E.F. Benson was a member of a strange and illustrious family. His father was Archbishop of Canterbury, and all the Benson siblings were interesting and accomplished. One brother, a celebrated essayist, poet and Cambridge professor, penned the lyrics to Elgar's "Land of Hope and Glory" (which is a part of his Pomp and Circumstance, which we all recognize from every graduation ceremony ever). Another was a Catholic priest and popular novelist. Their sister was an artist, writer and Egyptologist. Sadly, the Egyptologist and the professor went mad, likely suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder - their father may have suffered from it as well. After the death of the Archbishop, his wife set up housekeeping with the widow of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury in a lesbian relationship that lasted the rest of their lives. It is likely that all the Benson siblings were also homosexual (E.F. certainly was).

The six Lucia novels span the years between the wars, the last one appearing shortly before Benson's death in 1940. They all (except for the previously mentioned Miss Mapp) star Mrs. Emmeline Lucas, who calls herself Lucia. She lives in the village of Riseholme and is constantly striving for social supremacy. She is elegant and snobbish and completely insufferable. All the squabbles and issues are ludicrous and overblown. I find the books incredibly difficult to explain as, if one is asked what they are about, the only answer is "a bunch of upper middle class middle aged English people who live in a village and bicker." Which is true. But they are so, so funny in an almost Fawlty Towers-ish kind of way. Lucia and her best friend Georgie pretend they can speak Italian, so of course Benson keeps throwing actual Italians at them. It's always hilarious.

Miss Mapp is introduced in the titular novel in which Lucia doesn't appear - but when the two of them meet in Mapp and Lucia, it is like clash of the titans. Lucia moves to Tilling, where Mapp reigns supreme and it's just great. They loathe each other. All the books are filled with comic set pieces and great characters. The Vicar who speaks in a made up Scottish accent. The young female painter ("Quaint Irene") who wears knickerbockers. The great opera singer who is always inviting Italians to stay. The medium who cons everybody. The local Riseholme museum that contains a taxidermied pug and some shards of pottery that everyone optimistically has declared Roman. The pages of intrigue surrounding Georgie's hair, or the "guru" with whom everyone is entranced who makes them do yoga.

There is no sex at all ("that horrid thing which Freud calls sex") and no children. I thought, at one point that there were, but then it was subsequently revealed that the character was actually around thirty but liked to effect a childlike pose. Gorey really should have illustrated them. What the books do, is turn a bunch of very ordinary, everyday people into stars of great drama. There was no television so they all had to make their own fun with their gurus and ouidja board and theatricals. Like all great leaders, Lucia is painted as being both monstrous and heroic, but the canvas she is painted on is miniscule. Women and gay men were so often portrayed in this period as depressed and thwarted or deviant. Benson was a very old fashioned writer, but in some ways he was radical. His open mindedness towards every brand of eccentricity and oddness is one of the things that makes the books so engaging. And they are, as I keep saying, very, very funny.

No comments: