Alice McVeigh

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E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia

An article by Alice McVeigh

My book club recently rejected my suggestion of this mini-masterpiece – lol – which got me thinking about just how much I love it. Next to P.G. Wodehouse – who challenges Mark Twain in the humour stakes – Benson is my never-failing, go-to, feel-good author. Even Austen, famous for her upbeat, wedding-flooded endings, has far more angst than he…

This is historical fiction so feather-light that it resembles a tiny prawn cracker, the kind that almost instantly melts to nothing on your tongue. The humour is gentle, the satire has just enough wit to bite.

Edwardian society had its stratas, and Mapp and Lucia in Tilling (based on Rye) stand at the crest of theirs, vying for social supremacy, with first one and then the other edging ahead… Each forty-something lady has their supporters and their unbelievers, their miniature crises and their quite major embarrassments – but almost nobody dies, the approach of WWI is not so much as hinted at… no, it’s all comfortably middle-aged, upper middle-class, entirely middle-England characters, with their little foibles, jealousies and weaknesses affectionately portrayed.

 Lucia holds the entire series of books together (there is also Lucia in London, sans Mapp, and the delicious early Lucia novels, before the move to Tilling – in these she has operatic divas and Daisy as her foils, instead). Effortlessly snobbish but still delightful, she pretends to speak fluent Italian and believes herself a great deal more pianistically accomplished than she actually is. Her admirer, the asexual Georgie (they eventually marry) is just as winning, and the portraits of Diva, Major Benjy, Quaint Irene etc. are so splendiferous that one can’t help suspecting that, in Rye at least, they once existed.

Rye – here called Tilling – itself seems almost a character: a seaside town of pre-war innocence, if occasionally subject to (real) sea tempests.

This is escapism in its purest sense, and, if there’s no real drama, the writing itself is a delight. Benson’s prose is effortless – his pacing perfect – his dialogue as pitch perfect as Austen’s. There’s not a false note anywhere. This is escapism but – really – sometimes there’s nothing better. Sink into a Lucia book and you’ll find, an hour later, that you’ve somehow scoffed every tiny prawn cracker – and you upturn the book itself, hoping for more.

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