Monday, February 28, 2011

Article Review: "Middlemarch and Me," part 1: Middlemarch, Mead and Thirkell

A commenter (thank you Amaryllis) called to my attention the article "Middlemarch and Me" by Rebecca Mead in a recent issue of The New Yorker.[1] I had not had the time to write a review of the article before I, for the first time, read an Angela Thirkell book (also, thank you Amaryllis.) It is not surprising that coming to both of them on the recommendation of the same person I would find myself considering Mead’s article in light of my reading of Thirkell, and Thirkell in the light of my reading of Mead’s article. Nor is it surprising that I would find myself thinking (and rethinking) Middlemarch.

I had initially planned to write one long post about Mead’s article but decided that for purposes of clarity (and to avoid trespassing on the time of any readers) I should divide it into three parts: Mead’s contribution to the presumption/claim that Middlemarch is a great book / book to particularly value; Mead’s contribution to the ongoing debate of the relative “literary worth” of Austen versus Eliot; and the article’s utility / worth to someone who does not already value Middlemarch as a great, if not the greatest, English novel and Eliot as a great novelist.

The Mead article’s utility / worth to someone who does not already value “Middlemarch” as a great, if not the greatest, English novels and Eliot as a great novelist.

I begin by admitting that which before the eyes of many scholars is a mark of shame. I do not like Middlemarch. It is a book whose initial reading I remember as an experience of almost unrelieved drudgery. I read it before the point in my life when I decided that it wasn’t actually evil to not finish a book once I had begun reading it. One might think that any book first completed in such a fashion is unlikely to become a favourite upon a second reading yet it has been my experience that a bad “first time” is not an insuperable barrier to later enjoyment and appreciation. But this has not been the case for Middlemarch. At irregular intervals I return to the book, usually after someone whose taste in books I admire tells me that they have just reread or are currently rereading it. Buoyed up with their enthusiasm I crack the covers of my copy yet again and settle down to, if not enjoy then not actively dislike, what has been more than once described as the finest novel in the English language.

Each attempt leaves me further frustrated. “What is it,” I ask myself, “that I so dislike about this book.” I read other people writing about Middlemarch and fortified with their insights I open the book again. Yet each time I return to it I find it no more interesting, insightful or inspiring and so each time I finally give up and return the book to its place on the shelf near Gaskell (whose Cranford I love) and my Galsworthy collection (that needs rereading every several years) below my collection Austen’s novels (each of which is reread at least once a year) above Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time sequence and my well-thumbed Trollope novels. I gaze at the books ranged above it, beside it and below it and wonder—just why is I don’t like Middlemarch? It is obviously not because it is so long, nor because it is centered around the concerns of a small group of people in the English countryside, nor that issues of marriage loom so large for many of the characters.

My own frustration with reading Middlemarch leads me to welcome articles such as Mead’s—articles that seem to hold out the hope to me that finally I might achieve the ever elusive appreciation of the book. Alas, once again one of the book’s supporters fails to move me any closer to liking or even admiring the book. Indeed many of the things Mead finds most praiseworthy I feel are either commonplace achievements to be expected of any competently written novel or lie more in the intellect and imagination of the reader than in the book itself. Those (and more) I will write about in later postings.

However, one thing did strike me as I read Mead. Not for the first time I was taken aback at another reader’s identification and patience with Dorothea. Mead describes herself as identifying with Dorothea Brooke in “yearning for a significant existence.” Unlike Mead I neither identified nor empathized with a woman I found maddeningly obtuse. I, unlike Mead, did not fail to notice “a slight touch of stupidity” about Dorothea. Indeed I thought that Casaubon’s scholarly and intellectual shortcomings were writ so large that only a type of self-will toward martyrdom could explain Dorothea’s response to him. Increasingly over years it seemed more and more to me that faced with the perfectly unexceptional (in the Austen sense of the word) Sir James as a likely husband Dorothea turned to Casaubon as a way to avoid a life of ordinary pleasures and triumphs. I did not believe that Dorothea feared the stifling, aching banality of such a life as much as she feared finding out that such a life would not be stifling for it was she who was banal.

Having finished the article and still feeling shortchanged of insight into the attraction of Middlemarch I picked up the Angela Thirkell ominbus that I had just brought home from the library. The volume includes Ankle Deep, High Rising and Wild Strawberries all of which were written quite early in her career as a novelist. Elizabeth Bowen, in her introduction to the collected works, says of Ankle Deep, the earliest published of the three, that it is:
the least pleasing . . . . Mrs. Thirkell just gets away with her plaintive heroine—only just though. Aurea is a temperature-lowerer, if there  was one. That the full-blooded Valentine, her lover in name and would-be lover in fact, puts up with her whimsical dilly-dallying is amazing . [2] (viii)
Not the most promising of descriptions but having decided to read one of Thirkell’s early works I plunged into Ankle Deep.  I have much to say about the book, most of which I will save for a separate review, but one of the things that struck me most on this first reading is how the book managed to make the internal life of unexceptional people interesting. Each of the main characters in the novels is offered the opportunity to recognize an occasion calling for moral strength though not all are aware that that has happened. Each of them must make decisions that will have repercussions throughout the rest of their lives and yet, again, they are not universally aware of the fact that that has happened. Most of the characters are simply living their lives, as do most people, each seeing themselves at the centre of their own drama and each treating others, even others that they are in love with, as surfaces in which they can catch a glimpse of their own reflections.

Thirkell describes well the casual egotism that is an element of most of us. She does not rail at it even as she makes the reader aware of the ramifications of its attendant misreading for others. Thus I disagree with Bowen’s characterizations of both Aurea and Valentine. The latter is not noticeably more full-blooded than others. Even in the deepest throes of love Valentine remains essentially himself. The reader sees within the character in the now the older man he will grow to be. He is a man of his class, education and time and though he may venture occasionally to the margins of what is expected of him from his social circle he, both the reader and Aurea come to realize, is never seriously tempted to step across them.

I also disagree with Bowen’s characterization of Aurea as plaintive. Thirkell puts in the mouth of one of her characters a much better insight into the nature of Aurea’s character. Vanna tells Aurea that she has  “an inward eye” and then goes on to explain exactly what she means by that:

'Aurea can’t see very far in front of her, and what she sees doesn’t really exist,’ said Vanna comprehensively. ‘She couldn’t as a girl, and she can’t now. She lets ideas fill up the foreground, and spends her time pretending that facts are like ideas, which they aren’t. She can only see what is inside her own imagination. When you met her again the other day, Arthur, you told me that she hadn’t grown up very much, and that’s why. When she meets facts she runs away from them mentally, or winds them up in a cocoon of imaginings. She lives, I should say, largely in an idealized past, or an imaginary future. You can’t change her, Arthur, so don’t try.’ [2] (86.)
It was after reading that passage that I realized that Thirkell had explained to me what it was that I disliked about Dorothea Brooke. Aurea had an inward eye and so did Dorothea. I dislike the fact that Eliot ascribes philosophical meaning and intensity to the very shortcoming that Thirkell describes as a character flaw that is neither grand, nor tragic it is pedestrian. Aurea herself comes to see that:
Aurea came back and hugged her mother tightly. Then she went upstairs to bed. Her story has no end. Only, in time, she will be able to look back steadfastly on those few weeks, acknowledge her own folly without blenching, and laugh not unkindly, at her own pitiful inexperience. What she will think of Valentine by then is another question; but compassion will never be wanting.” [2] (159)
 To return to the initial paragraph of this posting I was surprised that what light Mead shone on my struggles with Eliot, Middlemarch and Dorothea Brooke was due to my disagreements with  Mead’s understanding and appreciation of all three. On the other hand I was surprised and charmed by the insight that Thirkell gave me into my own responses to all three. I don’t know if these reflections will lead me to another reading of Middlemarch but I do know that I am looking forward to the unread Thirkell novels awaiting me in the omnibus by my side. 

[1] The New Yorker 14 Feb. 2011: 76.

[2] Thirkell, Angela,  1966  An Angela Thirkell omnibus / with an introduction by Elizabeth Bowen  Hamish Hamilton, London,

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Democracy, Health Care and Unions

The other day I wrote that I felt that adequate health care and healthy trade unions were vital in order to keep democracy from withering in the United States. Apparently those who are, in my opinion, among the most hostile to real democracy in the United States agree with me on their importance since they are now waging on all out assault on both. 

How vigorous is this assault? So great is it that it is being noticed even in The New York Times and The Washington Post.[1] 

Consider Bob Herbert's opinion piece Absorbing the Pain in which Herbert talks with and about people who are under- or un- employed and who are facing life without health care, without homes and ultimately without hope. He specifically addresses the current attempts to limit the right of public employees to collectively bargain:

As important as that issue is, it’s just one skirmish in what’s shaping up as a long, bitter campaign to keep ordinary workers, whether union members or not, from being completely overwhelmed by the forces of unrestrained greed in this society.
The predators at the top, billionaires and millionaires, are pitting ordinary workers against one another. So we’re left with the bizarre situation of unionized workers with a pension being resented by nonunion workers without one. The swells are in the background, having a good laugh.
What seldom gets recognized or written about by the writers in newspapers such as The Times is the way in which a union's impact on wages is framed. When editorialists and opinion-writers ask the question "is it true that unionized workers make more than do those who are not" they are suggesting that if it were true then appropriate wage scales are being distorted and that the way to fix them is to lower the wages of the unionized workers. What seldom (if ever) is suggested is that the wages of the nonunionized workers be increased to rectify this distortion. Similarly it seldom, if ever, is suggested that way to deal with budget crises is to increase revenue through the tax code. I point this out because if public service workers are truly being paid too highly it might be better to clawback those wages through taxation that to break the workers union. 

We know, of course, why that will never be suggested as a solution to the budget problem. Higher taxes will hit employers and employees alike. Breaking unions will hit employees and benefit employers. And make no mistake it will benefit every employer in the state since without unions all wages and benefits will spiral even further downward.

However we should not think that all these proposals to cut the budget through the destruction of the middle-class are driven purely for the purposes of financial gain. If that were so government programs that benefited the overall health the country (and paid off fiscally in the long run) would not be under attack.

Charles M. Blow in a another Times Op-Ed piece The G.O.P.'s Abandoned Babies discusses the impact that budget decisions/cutbacks on the health of American babies. The United States, he reminds his readers, has the highest rate of infant mortality among the 33 countries the International Monetary Fund identifies as "advanced economies." Many of these infants deaths can be attributed to the high rate of premature births. That high rate was beginning to be whittled down in the last few years. The new budget cuts will eliminate or underfund the very agencies that have been distributing finds and care for pregnant women or researching ways to provide better care. As Blow points out:

It is savagely immoral and profoundly inconsistent to insist that women endure unwanted — and in some cases dangerous — pregnancies for the sake of “unborn children,” then eliminate financing designed to prevent those children from being delivered prematurely, rendering them the most fragile and vulnerable of newborns.
One cannot even argue that this budget cuts are good faith attempts to address the United States' economic woes because as Blow notes: 

[R]educing the number of premature births by just 10 percent would save thousands of babies and $2.6 billion — more than the proposed cuts to the programs listed, programs that also provide a wide variety of other services.
 When columnists and editorial writers who work at / publish newspapers that are firmly part of the political mainstream of the nation notice the deeply undemocratic nature of American policies the attacks on democracy have moved from being covert to overt. 

The next question may not be will the average American do anything about these attacks on American government rather can they?

[1]It is a truism among the right that these two papers are bastions of the left. That placement has been achieved by moving, by magical sleight of hand, the "acknowledged center"[2] of American political life significantly to the right of the average American.

[2] Acknowledged, that is, by the chattering classes. It was members of that class who declared that the "single payer option was off the table" before the health insurance debate even began.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Review: Mapp and Lucia

 Mapp and Lucia by E F Benson (1931)

In this, the fourth book of the Mapp and Lucia series, Benson finally deploys both women on the same stage at the same time. In order to do this, since each had long lived in a different community, Benson had to relocate at least one of them. This he does with the use of fairly obvious contrivances in addition to a succession of increasingly improbably coincidences. Yet most readers will forgive the author the occasional (or frequent) obviously forced movements of the players because the outcome of these movements is so delicious.

Having Mapp and Lucia share the same social milieu and same geographical environs solves a number of ‘writerly’ problems that grew out of the very success of Benson’s characterizations of Emmeline Lucas [in Lucia in London  and especially Queen Lucia] and Elizabeth Mapp [in Miss Mapp.] Each woman was so clearly the dominant character within her social circle that few readers would believe that any of the other residents of their social circles could truly challenge their preeminence. While watching Mapp or Lucia use trickery and sheer force of character is interesting without a strong challenger each lady teeters on the edge of becoming an unsympathetic character who bullies and/or manipulates those around her unmercifully. By placing them into the same venue Benson gives each woman the other as a truly worthy opponent. The reader, like the inhabitants of Tilling, can stand back and enjoy a competition between equally handicapped players—rooting first for one and then the other and, more than anything, rooting for the vanquished player to get up off the mat and return to the game.

Had Benson been somehow able to move one town to sit next to the other he might have been able to explore the differences and the similarities between two groups of “gentry” in the decades between the two world wars. Riseholme, as it was presented to the reader in Queen Lucia is a “new” village. The gentry who reside there are not longtime inhabitants but rather people who have retired to the country and a least partially made over an existing village in order to establish a place for their “society.” Lucia and those in her social circle work hard at making themselves appear to have deep roots where in fact none exist. The Lucases bought the cottages that they refurbished into looking old. Georgie himself bought some of the “heirlooms” he gave pride of place in his drawing room. This is not a settled society allowing change to creep in: It is a developing society trying to mask change with a settled appearance.

In Mapp and Lucia Benson rather than moving the two places together moves the leading figure from one venue into another as a way of contrasting the older fixed society and the newer society that strives to appear fixed.  On first reading this may not be so clear but on rereading the book it becomes more evident that Lucia would not be able to storm the comparatively settled society of Tilling were she not a wealthy woman. Nor is Lucia the first who had done so. In Miss Mapp readers come to realize to what degree the Poppits attempted to buy their way into Tilling society. Lucia’s efforts are both more and less straightforward than were those of Mrs. Poppit. She does not say outright that she thinks that Tilling society needs to change nor does she refuse to change in order to become part of Tilling society.

Beyond here there lie spoilers.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Democracy and Health Care

  A commentator on an earlier post asked the very good question:
the question then becomes what the heck do we do?
I cannot claim to have a prescription "for what ails" the United States. I am not a politician* and even if I was I hope I would have the wisdom to recognize the limitations of my knowledge and my expertise.

What follows are a few tentative suggestions.

First, become involved in politics at a local level. Running for office in the United States even at the state level, is ruinously expensive for anyone not personally wealthy or who does not have the support of the monied. That fact makes it difficult for anyone who does not support laws and regulations (or the repeal of laws and regulations) that favour the wealthy to run for most political offices. However it costs little to run for office in local elections.+ And fortunately it costs nothing to volunteer to work in local elections since one does not need to worry about travel or lodging expenses.

Take the time to observe the way in which "Tea Party" supporters have managed to insert themselves into the political life of the country through seats on local boards of eduction and other "lesser" organs of representative democracy. Americans elect individuals to jobs that have a wide range of responsibility and oversight including judges, sheriffs, members of the library board, members of the parole board and regents of the state universities. It is at this level of political involvement that it is easiest and perhaps most important to get involved.

Second, narrow the things you are going to fight for. By this I don't mean that you should give up caring about all but a few issues but rather than you should pick a few key places to make your stand. I personally would suggest two areas focus: health care and unions.

Why? Because my overwhelming concern right now now is for the large and growing number of marginalized Americans. The list includes (but is not limited to) the poor, women and QUILTBAGS.ǂ Strengthening health care and unions would do much to protecting their rights.

The most marginalized and those who are the most at risk are those who are least able to protect existing rights or gain additional rights through the process of negotiations. Those who are in power, the kyriarchy, have all the cards. The marginalized have few or none. The powerful can 'wait out' those without power. The poor parent who has children to feed at home will take a job cut rather than lose hir job. The QUILTBAG will hesitate to "make noise" in the workplace since they are the least likely to have solid support from those around them. And women, living in a political and cultural environment that is threatening rights so recently won are unlikely= to "make noise" for fear that the kyriarchy will set one group of women against another while suggesting to men that all the rights women have won have come at the cost of their own.

Health care:
Because health care is generally in the United States tied to employment someone who has "preexisting conditions" or who has children (with or without preexisting conditions) is little more than an indentured servant. They could leave their place of work but only at great risk to their family's economic and physical health. Parents would not be forced to stay at bad jobs for the sake of the health of their children. And more employees would be willing to face down bad employers if losing a job did not mean losing affordable access to the health care system.

The health care paradox:
Unfortunately achieving universal and affordable health care in the United States is almost impossible if the country does not first achieve universal and affordable health care. By that I mean that universal health care is not just an end it is also a means. When one lives in a country with universal health care then, in some sense, every person in that country is a member of one's own tribe. Preventive care becomes doubly important: one wants all the members of one's tribe to be maximally healthy and it is cost-efficient to prevent disease and ill health.

If one grows up with the idea that paying for the health of the child who lives down the block is little different that paying for the health of one's nephew -- then one also tends to feel that wrongs done to the adult who lives down the block are wrongs done to a member of one's family. Unless one sees one's fellow citizens as members of the same tribe one tends to resent paying for their well being. Universal health care is not the only way to achieve "national tribalism" but once one has achieved "national tribalism" universal health care is both logical and necessary.

So my suggestion to Americans who want to "make a difference" is to begin small and to work at achieving those things that lower the barriers between Americans.

*Unfortunately all too many politicians are not aware of their own limitations. It is unreasonable to expect any human being to be well versed in all areas of knowledge. It is not unreasonable to expect other human beings to be cognizant of their own limitations. 

+There are obviously exceptions to this general rule. Running for election as a congressional representative in New York City or in Los Angeles can be extremely expensive. 
ǂThe named groups are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Not with bang but a whimper

I woke up today to news of Libya. People are demonstrating in the streets of that country just as a few weeks ago they risked their lives on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. Earlier people had laid their lives on the line to topple the government of Tunisia. In Bahrain and Yemen governments have unleashed the military or thugs (or both) on protesters. Doctors and nurses attempting to care for the injured have been assaulted for doing so. Libyan officials in other countries are resigning their positions. Members of the Libyan military have defected.

Everywhere people are demanding more rights and fighting to protect the rights they have.

Except, it seems, in the United States. In many other countries dictatorial governments are being opposed by protesters who are willing to put their lives on the line for sake of a better life for their fellow citizens. In the United States many citizens have stood by, grumbling perhaps but not really protesting, while their government has become more and more the protector of corporations, institutions and movements that are not friendly to interests of the average American.

The rights of women have been under attack in the United States for many years now. It matters little if a woman has the vote if she has no opportunity to vote someone who will represent her interests. The Republicans have seized upon the current economic conditions to find excuses to underfund and defund organizations and agencies that serve women. The Democrats seldom draw a line in the sand in response to such attempts.Women's rights are, apparently, always negotiable. Thus women's rights are by definition not rights at all but privileges since an inalienable right is not something that can be put up for compromise.

Republicans cannot get up and say "we do not think women are really people" and they cannot (yet) get up and say "we don't think women should have the same rights as men." They can however strip legislative and fiscal support from every group that provides support for women. And the women cannot fight back even at the ballot box since the Democratic party will gladly take a woman's vote but will seldom support a woman where it might cost them the vote of a bigot or a sexist.

In an earlier post I wrote
If the powers that be wish to successfully to carve away at the rights of the public in general the best place to start is with the rights of women.
What seemed like an overstatement a short time ago now begins to look prescient for today when I woke up I saw that the governor of Wisconsin still plans to strip from citizens of his state their rights to collectively bargain. The governments of the United States do not fear the people in the streets. They do not worry about large numbers of protesters flooding the streets to protect their own rights. They worry little that a sufficient number Americans might take to the streets to support the rights of other Americans.

Democracy is struggling to be born in the streets of Egypt and Yeman and Tunisia and Bahrain and Libya.

Democratically elected representatives are negotiating away the rights of their constituents in the United States.

And this is the way American Democracy will end; not with a bang but a whimper.

Book Review: Lucia in London

Lucia in London by E F Benson (1927)

As I mentioned in my review of Miss Mapp Lucia in London was originally published 5 years after Miss Mapp and, were the modern day reader not guided by the order in which the books are placed in the Make Way For Lucia compendium, would be read as the third, rather than the second, of the Mapp and Lucia books. Indeed, from the point of view of publication order and such internal evidence as can be derived from the books themselves at the moment Lucia in London was published there was no such thing as a Mapp and Lucia series. Riseholme was mentioned only once in Miss Mapp and Emmeline Lucas never. Similarly neither Elizabeth Mapp, nor any of the other residents of Tilling nor indeed the village itself are mentioned in Lucia in London.

It would not be until 1931 that Benson would return to the village of Tilling or to Elizabeth Mapp as the focus of a book and it seems reasonable to this reader to consider that Mapp and Lucia is the first book of the ‘real’ Mapp and Lucia series with Miss Mapp, Queen Lucia and Lucia in London functioning as prequels to the series.

My first response to Lucia in London was to feel much as did her friends and acquaintances left in behind in Riseholme. The Lucia I glimpsed in London seemed to be strangely unlike the Lucia I had come to appreciate in Queen Lucia. This shingled short-skirted social climber seems more a caricature than a character study. As a reader I may suspect why Benson chose to move Lucia from the village where she so dominated social life to the larger world of London while feeling that the very conceit undermined so crucial aspects of what made the Lucia of Queen Lucia charming.

Benson may have chosen to move Lucia into a different social scene because he felt that she had no true rival in Riseholme since the only person who could truly have been a rival had been conveniently removed from the picture by authorial fiat. Although this reader does not begrudge Olga Braceley her worldly successes she wishes that Benson had been able to introduce a character to Riseholme who would have upset Lucia’s natural social dominance and who lived more continuously in that village.

The things that motivate Lucia in this book demonstrate how different the characters Mapp and Lucia actually are. If Miss Mapp, of the book of the same name, had ever been able to as completing dominate the world of Tilling as Lucia did the world of Riseholme one cannot imagine Mapp moving on a larger venue. This reader pictures her sitting at her garden window watching the world go by forever concerned about the minutiae of daily life. Miss Mapp does not did not need to do stunts to enliven her life in Tilling for each and every day of her life is devoted to the job of maintaining her social control over those with whom she would dine and who she would invite into her home. One might say that Mapp’s will to power was undiluted by any other pleasure or interest. She does not play an instrument nor does she even pretend to read books. Her only “cultured” pastime is that of painting but since everyone in her circle also paints her doing so is not an indication that she particularly enjoys the act of painting or the results of her labour. It is just an acceptable way of passing the time that also gives her opportunities to spy on others and to sit in judgment of others.

Lucia, on the other hand, seems to feel that she should feel things. The preformative Lucia, the Lucia that Emmeline Lucas wants others to think she is, would feel those things therefore Mrs. Lucas must appear to do so. However Mrs. Lucas’ the joy lies not in not in the music or the art but in having others watch her appearing to enjoy music or art.

Since Riseholme provides Lucia with little opportunity to contend with someone else with the same skill at and desire for social dominance, Benson must move her to another venue lest the story devolve into repetitive instances of Lucia triumphing over her hapless neighours. However in moving her activities to London Benson must also alter the nature of the activities themselves since London is full of people like Olga Braceley; people who actually create the art and music that Lucia pretends to enjoy. Thus Lucia apparently sets herself a new goal. Rather than dominating the social world of Riseholme Lucia now sets as her ambition entry into the inner circles of London society. Lucia will work as hard on social climbing in London as the Emmeline Lucas worked to prevent new blood from dethroning her in Riseholme.

Readers be warned—past here there lie spoilers.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book Review: Miss Mapp

Miss Mapp by E. F. Benson (1922)

The modern day reader who having come across E. F. Benson’ Queen Lucia and enjoyed it may find herself somewhat perplexed as to which book she should read next in order to get her Benson-Lucia-Fix. Standing in the library (or the bookstore) she sees a book entitled Miss Mapp. Having just read Queen Lucia the reader is comfortably sure that no lady of that name was among the Riseholme residents who made up Lucia’s social circle. Looking more closely at the cover the reader notices that the book is subtitled Part III: Make Way For Lucia and searches the shelves for the elusive next book in the series. Coming upon Lucia in London, Part II: Make Way For Lucia the reader happily hurries off to read the further adventures of Lucia.

Is the reader wrong in assuming that this Lucia in London is the second of Benson’s books which feature Emmeline Lucas? No. But if the reader is interested in reading all of the Mapp and Lucia books by original publication date then  Miss Mapp is clearly the second rather than the third book of the series since it was published in 1922 and  Lucia in London in 1927. 

The reader who happened upon Miss Mapp before any of the Lucia book would finish Miss Mapp quite ignorant of the very existence of Emmeline Lucas although there is internal evidence that the two women inhabit the same universe as indicated when the reader learns where Miss Mapp picked up the phrase “au reservoir”:

She had heard it last month when on a visit to a friend at that sweet and refined village called Riseholme. It was rather looked down on there, as not being sufficiently intellectual. But within a week of Miss Mapp's return, Tilling rang with it, and she let it be understood that she was the original humorist.

Although this reviewer understands some of the reasons behind the choice of those who edited the compendium Make Way For Lucia to reverse the order by publication of these two books by doing so they make it more difficult for the modern day reader to appreciate all the nuances of Benson’s portrait of the town and society of Tilling. The reader is less likely to see the way in which the book Miss Mapp functions as a commentary on the characters and their social situation.

The first part of this review contains only the mildest of spoilers. The reader will be warned before the reviewer moves in outright spoiler territory.

Miss Mapp is set in the coastal town of Tilling. It is there that the titular character lives and all of the “on screen” events take place in the town and its environs. The book follows some months in the lives a subset of the residents of Tilling and, at least on the surface, it is about the things that matter to this small group of people. Thus, it is a detailed study of life among the generally financially comfortable and yet not too-comfortable gentry in England in the early years of the period between the wars. The titular character is a middle-aged spinster who has not yet publicly given up the hopes of leaving spinsterhood although the possibility of marriage is seldom foremost among her concerns. Her energies are apparently concentrated on paying the least amount of money possible for any goods and services and on knowing every detail of the lives of those she considers her social equals.

It may be difficult for some reading this book almost a hundred years after its initial publication to quite ‘place’ Mapp’s monetary circumstances. She has the financial wherewithal to have two live-in servants and a gardener who comes in several days of the week yet she does not own a car.  Neither is evidence that she is very wealthy nor quite hard up.

It is misleading to use the economic and social standards of one time as a measuring stick to judge to wealth or poverty of another. Agatha Christie is reported to have said, “when I was young I never expected to be so poor that I couldn't afford a servant, or so rich that I could afford a motor car." In the England in which this book is set no one with any pretentions to being a member of ‘society’ or ‘the gentry’ would be without at least one servant while the ability to own a car was a sign of real wealth. To flaunt that wealth among a community of social equals was considered by some a sign of ill breeding unless most of one’s community was equally well off.

Miss Mapp, and most of those in her social circle, practice the kind of small economies that signal economic insecurity yet since almost everyone practices the same economies there is no shame in them. Indeed, life in Tilling revolves around the unacknowledged awareness that almost everyone else in one’s social circle is doing so.

The economic insecurity that lurks in the background is not due to an impending war or to a present depression but rather it reflects a larger change going on in society. Rising levels of industrialization have diminished the number of men and woman who are available to work as servants since they receive better wages and are better hours in jobs that did not exist two decades earlier. Rising levels of education not only meant that working class men and woman had access to more jobs it also changed the ways they interacted with members of the middle class. Class distinctions were beginning to break down. If one reads books such as this closely one realizes that many of the tradesmen with whom Miss Mapp and other members of her social circle interact probably have similar yearly incomes. The distinction between the two is, of course, is that Mapp and her circle live on pensions and dividends rather from wages or the profits from  their own businesses or labour.

From this point on the reader may find explicit and implicit spoilers for both Miss Mapp and Queen Lucia.