Monday, February 21, 2011

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.

Lucia in London begins with Emmeline Lucas and her husband inheriting a London house and a tidy sum of money from his elderly aunt. Instead of selling or renting the house and spending their extra money on life in Riseholme Lucia decides to keep the house and live part of the year in London and thus begins in her campaign to conquer the social scene of that city’s titled and wealthy inhabitants.

Lucia’s drive to conquer London life is difficult to root convincingly in her portrait as drawn in the earlier book. Lucia and her husband had lived in Onslow Gardens in London while Mr. Lucas was in Benson’s words amassing ““a fortune, comfortable in amount and respectable in origin, at the Bar.” It was from London that the couple retired to Riseholme. From Benson’s description it seems that the Lucases were among the first to take part in the gentrification of the village and thus to some degree the Riseholme they lived in was at least in part their own creation. Lucia’s attitudes toward London and RIseholme are made quite clear In Queen Lucia:
As long as she directed the life of Riseholme, took the lead in its culture and entertainment, and was the undisputed fountain-head of all its inspirations, and from time to time refreshed her memory as to the utter inferiority of London she wanted nothing more. But to secure that she dedicated all that she had of ease, leisure and income.

Lucia disparages London frequently, “No one in London has time to listen: they are all thinking about who is there and who isn't there, and what is the next thing.” While the reader may be forgiven for not being entirely convinced that all of Lucia’s opinions about London arise from her sense of aesthetics and culture rather than her perception of her relative place in the metropolis Benson makes it quite clear that Lucia wanted to live where she would be able to dominate society. It was a natural and logical thing for a woman with such an ambition to relocate herself to a place of a size that made its fruition possible.

The attitudes that Lucia previously demonstrated towards the titled and the renowned also make her vigorous social climbing out of character. It is not that Lucia the reader met in the previous book was not a snob but rather that she saw others as no more than ways of enhancing her own importance. Lucia did not attend the lunches and dinners of the titled and wealthy because she was impressed by them but rather because she wanted the titled and wealthy to be seen by others to lunch and dine with her. In London she would always be one of many hovering around the brightest of society’s lights while in Riseholme the light that wealthy and titled shone was on Lucia herself.

The change of venue for Lucia also detracted from one of the greatest strengths of Benson’s writing in the Mapp and Lucia books—the minute and loving examination of a small group of people in a restricted environment. The first chapters are vintage Benson and vintage Lucia as Georgie, the Quantocks and various other Riseholmites attempt to determine just exactly how much money has been left the Lucases. In subsequent chapters Benson's focus seems to drift. There is not enough about Riseholme nor is there enough about Lucia’s new London friends. Other than in the earliest chapters the passages in the book when the reader revisits Riseholme much of the book feels a lightly sketched series of vignettes rather than serious character studies or plot advancement.

Village life in Riseholme, the reader is told, was dry and flat without Lucia to inspire everyone else and yet over the course of the book Daisy Quantock takes up more than one new stunt and Pillson and his friends successfully launch a monetarily successful village museum. We are told that even with all this activity the Riseholmites are left feeling flat without their one-time queen and yet when we do see them they are as active and involved as they were in Queen Lucia. If Benson had occasionally returned the reader to a Riseholme where all seemed static and stagnant he would have run the risk that the reader would find the chapters in Riseholme boring. However this reader is convinced that Benson wrote the Riseholme chapters as he did not because he feared that readers would look interest in Riseholme but instead because Benson himself actually found Riseholme and its inhabitants far more interesting than denizens of the social circle Lucia works her way into in London. The underwritten nature of the London characters adds to this suspicion. Those characters seem to have an existence only for the purpose of this book and one feels that they disappear like the mist when the last page is read. Daisy Quantock, on the other hand is written so strongly that one would not be surprised to come upon her one day as one is doing one’s marketing.

Lucia in London is not a badly written book nor is it a boring book. It is, however, a letdown for the reader after the dizzying heights of Queen Lucia and Miss Mapp. It convinces this reader that Lucia is best observed in the milieu of the small town with social circle made up at most a dozen characters. Thus this reader is anxious to start the next book in the Mapp and Lucia series, Mapp and Lucia. Benson now has all his players on the stage—it is time for the curtain to go up.

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