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.

In Queen Lucia Benson held up a magnifying glass to examine one small group among the middle-class/gentry of the England of the early 1920s and in Miss Mapp he examines a group separated from Lucia’s by geography, economics and concerns.

Riseholme s a village within easy distance of London and is still, as Queen Lucia opens undergoing the process of gentrification.  Lucia and those in her social circle are not natives of Riseholme in the sense of being born there, or living there during their childhood. These are people who have, for the most part, retired to Riseholme. They are not beyond having economic concerns and yet when they have to choose between maintaining face socially and reporting thefts to the police they choose to swallow their loses rather than their pride. Indeed their greatest concern is how to fill their time. They gossip a lot. They have dinners and teas. They hold parties. And they very consciously pursue fads as a way to pass their time. These are people who work at not working. They read book reviews rather than books since they desire to talk about books rather than read them. They learn piece of music in order to play it with and in front of other people and so learn no more of the work than is necessary for that purpose.

Although Miss Mapp’s social circle is not made up exclusively, or even primarily, of people who were born in Tilling, Tilling is not undergoing the process of gentrification. The people in Mapp’s social circle live in houses that have stood for generations rather than in repurposed cottages. Mapp herself, the reader will learn in another book, inherited her house from her aunt.
Although none of them, with the exception of the Vicar, has a job their lives do not seem to be dominated by the need to fill their time. They play bridge, it is true, but bridge, like so much else they do, seems to function as a combination of an opportunity to exercise small economies and a form of social warfare—for social warfare, the infighting and place jostling so endemic among small communities, is the true work of most of the people Mapp socializes with. They worry over small changes in the social hierarchy at least as much as they worry about money. 

Miss Mapp and Queen Lucia are similarly structured as a series of episodes in the lives of a small group of people who live in a small community and socialize only within their own small and limited social circle. The concerns of the people in both communities appear to be quite mundane and removed from the political, economic or social upheavals of their time. Yet, upon consideration the similarities between the two books actual hide significant differences.

By the end of Queen Lucia much appears to happen and yet upon reflection the reader finds that little really changed. The people who marry did so in order to minimize the changes in their lives. Olga Braceley actually plots to lessen the impact her arrival in Riseholme makes to its existing social hierarchy. Georgie Pillson only plays with idea of making a radical change in his life. Thus just as at the beginning of the book Lucia is the star around whom the other inhabitants of Riseholme orbit, she remains so at the end. Nothing has changed.

At the end of  Miss Mapp nothing appears to have happened and yet upon examination the reader will find that indeed much has. The marriage that took place will change the social hierarchy of the village. A major character has died and after his death the social lives of those around him do not return to their accustomed patterns. For at least some of the inhabitants of Tilling nothing will be the same.

To read these two books, one after the other, is to see Benson examining in exquisite detail, two groups of people who from a distance appear to inhabit the same place in the social and economic landscape of England in the 1920s and yet, upon examination seem to have lives dominated by different concerns. If one reads the books in the same order in which they were published this similarity-with-difference stands out but when read in the order in which they are placed in the Make Way For Lucia compendium it tends to be lost.

In one sense, Miss Mapp and Emmeline Lucas are members of the same social and economic class and yet as these two books show the pressures and concerns of their respective social circles are subtly but distinctly different. Lucia might have plotted mightily to get the Prince of Wales to take tea with her but she would not have haunted the train station in the hope of waving a flag at him. Lucia is clearly better off than her friends in Riseholme but none of them feel the need to practice the kind of economies that are standard among those in Tilling with whom Mapp socializes. The fact that she is well off makes it easier for Lucia to dominate the Riseholme society but much of her power lies in her ability to organize others and to create among them a sense of purpose and importance. Mapp’s will to power is less elegant than is Lucia’s and the hard work it takes to dominate her world is more visible. Mapp is more aware that she is teetering on a social and economic precipice although she would be unable to explain why. Yes, wages are going up, prices are going up and dividends are going down and yet part of her unease is the fact that social mobility is thrusting up people such as Mrs. Poppit whose wealth both allows her to buy her home and her car and, to some extent, her way into Miss Mapp’s world.

Although one can see signs of the changing attitude towards servants the class system is still firmly in place. Perhaps it was most firmly in place amongst those, such as the ‘quality’ of Tilling, whose incomes only allow to continue living in what they consider to be appropriate manner if they exercise judicious care. The ladies of Tilling go to what seem extremes to the modern reader in order to keep up appearances. Diva cuts the flowers out of old chintz curtains to refurbish one of her dresses yet has a maid. Miss Mapp watches every sixpence and yet has at least a maid, a cook and a gardener. That each of these people is equal is not even a pretense. When Miss Mapp deduces how Diva plans to recycle her chintz curtains she (Mapp) works with her servants at breakneck speed in order to appear first in her chintz decorated dress so that Diva will not be able to wear hers. Diva’s revenge is to give her dress to her maid. Once Janet (or Diva’s Janet as she is referred to by others) appears publicly in the dress Mapp will never be able to wear hers again—even though it was her who first appeared thus dressed in public.

[special addendum]

The Male Impersonator (1929)

This short story was originally published many years after Miss Mapp (1922) and several before Mapp and Lucia (1931) in a run that was apparently limited to 530 copies. It is appended to current editions of Miss Mapp and sheds an interesting light on Benson’s attitude toward Mapp and Tilling and a sinister insight into what it was like, in 1929, to depart from strict social conformity.

The Male Impersonator appears to have been written by Benson long after he had ceased to think Tilling and its residents as a major venue for further stories. Indeed Benson seems to have forgotten important developments in Miss Mapp and thus refers to Susan as Mrs. Poppit even though she married Mr. Wyse near the end of that book.

The Male Impersonator makes it clear how narrow were the confines of acceptable behavior among the social circles such as those you would find in towns like Tilling and how much power was wielded by individuals such as Miss Mapp. Mapp is unwilling to recognize socially a woman who, although titled, once performed onstage as a male impersonator. Neither money nor the social prestige of a title could offset that personal history. The reader is clearly supposed to be amused that, by the end of the story, Mapp receives her comeuppance when it turns out that the Lady Deal who has bought a house for her old governess is the not the Lady Deal who was once a female impersonator.  Mapp’s parsimony in not owning an up to date Peerage has led her to snubbing the new, unbesmirched Lady Deal. The lesson the reader learns is not that it is wrong to discriminate against people for having strayed outside the narrow confines of the social mores of the time but rather that not have up to date information on which to base ones prejudgments is a false economy.


  1. Hmmm, interesting. I've never read anything by Benson, but have you read any of Angela Thirkell's novels? She covers similar territory in an imaginary Barsetshire, from the mid-Thirties to the late Forties. So in addition to all the other forces for social change, there's the War.

    I've never know quite how to take her books. They're meant to be comic, and she really skewers her county gentry sometimes; she's quite familiar with their pretensions and their foibles. But it's as if she can't imagine any other way to live decently. The rural poor are all right in their place, and they should be happy to stay there, but we couldn't live like that; the urban poor are (judging by their Evacuee children) barely human; the urban middle classes may be good sorts of people in their way, but they're not our sort. And "foreigners" are, without exception, horrors.

    The servant thing really is amazing to modern eyes. The dividends may be shrinking annually, you may be pinching pennies, or shillings, everywhere, but true deprivation is having to do without a cook. And every young mother seems to expect to have a "baby nurse." The better-off nurseries, of course, have a Nanny and an under-nurserymaid or two for the whole of the 0ffspring's childhood. In fact, one of the qualifications for being "the right sort of person" was having been brought up properly by a nanny; mere parents not being qualified for the job, I suppose. You could write a dissertation-- somebody probably has-- on the the fictional nanny's inherent adoration of "gentry children" and lack of interest in any other kind (even their own).

    The right nursery had to be followed by the right prep school,the right public school, the right university college or army regiment for boys; the right casual education (too much emphasis on academics for girls is undesirable) and the right social training for girls. Then the right spouse and and the right house and the right Nanny and it all starts all over again.

    Class and rank and social place are always on everybody's mind. Consider the introduction of an unemployed lady's-companion of genteel birth, to a long-established nanny:
    "How do you do, Nurse," said Miss Morris,
    coming forward and giving her hand with what Nurse considered exactly the right nuance deference as from an unplaced companion to a pillar of the house, equality as from employee to employee, and proper condescension as from a clergyman's daughter to a children's nurse, which won her complete approval."

    That's a lot to put into one handshake!
    It's clear that some of the "tradesmen" are better off than some of the gentry, but the gulf is unbridgeable anyway. Although there is one filthy-rich industrialist who almost manages it; but he manages it by joining the other side, so to speak: he changes his political party and "comes out as a Conservative," and marries the spinster daughter of one of the old families. Even more importantly, he learns to wear the right clothes and speak with the right usage and talk to titled ladies with the correct manners. Otherwise, all his money would have done him little good socially.

    Sorry to maunder on, but I just re-read The Brandons, so Thirkell is on my mind!

    * goes off to add a Benson book or two to the list *

  2. Sorry, someone spoke to me unexpectedly and startled me, and I clicked Post instead of Preview, so I hope that was neither too long nor with too many errors, because I didn't have a chance to edit. :-(

  3. No, not too long at all. In fact I would have loved to read more since your description of Thirkell's books was both interesting and insightful. I have a few more Benson reviews almost finished and now I am going to go back and look at them again.

    Benson seems to specialize in writing about those who have had no children or whose children are old enough to have left the nursery. They certainly aren't involved parents and one imagines that when the son or daughter was younger they were looked after by a Nanny until they were packed off the appropriate public or finishing school.

    In Benson's Mapp books (those set in Tilling before and after Emmeline Lucas moves there) I think the invisibility of children is partly due to the fact that Benson revolves these books around those members of the middle class who can barely manage to maintain their place in society even with strict economies. None of them could manage to continue to do so with the additional expenses that would arise with parenthood.

    Benson himself spent some of the last years of his life as the mayor of Rye -- the town which probably served as the model for Tilling -- and so I think he had an ample opportunity to see the worst of his class as people with several servants would complain to the mayor about their "rates" and the money being wasted on council housing. He draws some rather cruel pictures of such behaviour in a later Mapp and Lucia book.

    And now I will have to add a Thirkell book or two to my list.

    Have you any suggestions as to which one or two to start with?

  4. For a Thirkell to start with, I'd probably go with her "middle period," if I may call it that. Her earliest books are mostly fluffy, her later books are generally lower in quality, pretty much just a re-hash of her earlier stuff, with improbable match-ups of any characters who've managed to escape being married off in the earlier books. So maybe one of these, depending on what you're interested in:

    Pomfret Towers (1938) or The Brandons (1939) for "county" life right before the war, right before it all changed.

    Northbridge Rectory (1941) for the impact of some of those changes on the upper middle class, in what sounds like similar territory to your Benson villages.

    Marling Hall (1942) has, as I recall, quite a bit of nursery detail, and some good comic scenes.

    The Headmistress (1944)for the upper class clutching on to its way of life even as everything changes around them.

    Private Enterprise (1947), for the what-do-we-do-next postwar mood. if you need more on your list!


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