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.

It seems to this reader that the first challenge that Benson faced in writing this book was dealing with some structural problems that had arisen in both his created worlds of Tilling and Riseholme. As mentioned earlier in this review, both Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas had no challengers in their social circles who were up to their fighting weight. Benson needed to provide each woman with a worthy opponent and solved the problem for both at the same time when he moved Lucia from Riseholme to Tilling.

The public motivation provided Lucia for making this move, that some of the sparkle of life in Riseholme was gone after the death of her husband, allowed Benson to deal with two other structural details. The reader gains the most enjoyment from the machinations of Lucia and Mapp when the reader had some insight into how and why each lady was undertaking her campaign. In Tilling Mapp was surrounded with old acquaintances who were ‘onto’ her to some degree and thus the reader could see her actions both through her eyes and the eyes of watchful and sometimes critical others. However in Riseholme no one was really "on to" Lucia. Her husband was a near non-entity whose main purpose appears to have supplied her with the funds necessary for her to live as she wished to live. They interacted so seldom and on such a superficial level that his non-presence in Mapp and Lucia is barely noticeable. Georgie Pillson was admirer more than a critic. He was almost her official court swain when Queen Lucia opened, but he waivered in loyalty between Lucia and Olga Braceley after the latter moved to the village. Killing off Mr. Lucas give Lucia a reason to move to Tilling where she will meet with a worthy opponent. Relocating Georgie to Tilling placed him clearly (although not permanently) into Lucia’s camp with no divided loyalties.

Mr. Lucas is removed from the series by dying ‘off-screen’ between books. The last the reader saw of Lucia in the Lucia in London she had decided to quit London society and return to Riseholme due to the strain of city life or her husband’s health. As the next book opens it is almost a year since that death and Lucia is considering how best to gently reinsert herself in the social life of Risholme. This beginning is quite jarring for the reader who finished Lucia in London and immediately picked up Mapp and Lucia. Indeed, one of the ‘benefits’ of reversing the order of the second and third books is that the reader experiences an entire book between Philip Lucas and his widow’s drawing her mourning to a close.

Benson provides Lucia for more than one reason for wanting to leave Riseholme. Given the relatively minor role Mr. Lucas played in Lucia’s dominance of Riseholme society his passing would not alone adequately explain her move to another venue. What does ring true is that Lucia feels a certain staleness to life in Riseholme. None of the true Riseholmites were ever able to effectively challenge her preeminence in that village. Daisy Quantock might occasionally plot to undermine Lucia’s social dominance but she is, the reader quickly realizes, doomed always to fail. It is Olga Braceley, an outsider, who is able, without consciously wishing to do so, to undermine Lucia’s control but Olga is herself is an interloper and at best part time inhabitant of Riseholme. No wonder Lucia finds that the taste has gone out of life. Daisy can never be a serious rival and the only serious rival she has encountered for years is seldom present in Risholme and seldom intentionally acts to undermine her.

In moving Lucia to Tilling Benson provides her with a worthy opponent at exactly the moment when her life has become stale and empty. Elizabeth Mapp, like Lucia herself, had considered herself the leading figure in her own community. However, unlike Lucia, Mapp is situated in a much more richly populated environment. There was scarcely a resident of Riseholme, other than Daisy Quantock, who showed themselves willing to take on Lucia. None of them can vie with Lucia’s wealth, none of them carry their own weight in social status and most of them are reducible to a few salient characteristics. Mrs. Watson (later Mrs. Boucher) makes her way around the village in a bath chair. Colonel Boucher has bulldogs. Mrs. Antrobus uses an ear trumpet. The Misses Antrobus gambol and giggle. Robert Quantock complains about dinner.  The reader does not know much about these characters save for the fact than none is able to put up much resistance to Lucia’s domination of their society.

The gentry of Tilling, on the other hand, might be dominated by Miss Mapp but not for lack of vigorous attempts to topple her. Mapp herself acknowledges that Mr. Wyse wields a great deal of influence over the gentry of Tilling. Irene Cole openly mocks Miss Mapp. Diva Plaistow not only actively plots to make Miss Mapp look ridiculous she is sometimes successful in her attempts. It is not surprising that this cast of characters would initially welcome Lucia’s challenge to Mapp’s suzerainty and later resent and challenge Lucia’s.

Benson had already established the fact that a Riseholme existed in the England of Tilling. In Miss Mapp the village is mentioned in passing. It was there that Mapp first heard the phrase “au reservoir.” This makes Lucia’s decision to go to Tilling and see in person the house she saw advertised in The Times less random since it is plausible that Lucia would remember the name Mapp and Georgie remember the woman herself in some detail.

The reader has been made aware in the first two Lucia books that Emmeline Lucas is quite well off and has also been made aware in the first Mapp book and Elizabeth Mapp while clearly a member of the middle class needs to make strategic economies in order to maintain the style of life she finds appropriate to her perceived status.  Thus the reader is not surprised that Mapp regularly rents out her house, Mallards, nor that Lucia can afford to rent it.

Mapp and Lucia has little overarching plot and much contrivance. Lucia needs to venture forth from the world of Riseholme and so one day she sees an ad in the newspaper. Lucia is fortuitously offered a chance to let her own home in Riseholme for an extended period of time and finally her tenant so falls in love with Riseholme that Lucia is offered a handsome amount of money to sell her home there. The way must be opened for Georgie to come to Tilling with Lucia. Olga Braceley is sent off on a world tour. The house across from Mallards (Mapps house and Lucia’s holiday rental) is also for rent. The sibling of Lucia’s tenant wants to rent Georgie’s home in Riseholme for an extended period of time. Georgie’s tenant also falls in love with Riseholme and offers Georgie a handsome amount of money for the house he is now renting.

By the end of the book Lucia has become part of the life of Tilling. She and Miss Mapp have shared an adventure and have clearly demonstrated that they are worthy adversaries. And they play off each other very well. Miss Mapp has few redeeming features. She is not a good friend. She is not a philanthropist. Save painting, she cultivates no arts. She appears to read few books and to think about little else except for her place in her society. Lucia is more likable than Miss Mapp because she is not limited to diminishing those around her. She is shown as being quite a good friend and willing to part with some of her money for a good cause as long, of course, as others know that she is doing so. She isn’t a deep reader but she does feel that people should appear to read. She is a limited musician but, again, believes that being a musician has a value. Miss Mapp’s horizon is limited by the scope and nature of her ambition. She wants to dominate the social life of Tilling and does so primarily by cutting down those around her. Lucia also wants to dominate the social life of Tilling but not because it is Tilling, simply because she wants to dominate the social life anywhere she is. Because she desires to be important and central everywhere she wants to appear to have the skills, interests and talents valued in the various spheres she wishes to dominate. Lucia’s behaviour seems more loveable and less overbearing in Tilling where she is not simply mowing down upstarts who have no chance of taking her on

With all this in place Benson tackles, in the next book, the question of money and its power and influence in the England that he is writing about.

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