Thursday, February 17, 2011

Book Review: Queen Lucia

Queen Lucia by E. F. Benson. (1920)

While I have read this book at least once a year for the last two decades I never cease to find some new delight in the writing and in the characters around whom this book focuses. Having arrived once again at the last page I could hardly wait to move on to the next book in the Mapp and Lucia Series, Miss Mapp.[1] Several chapters into Miss Mapp I put the book down and started to think about the similarities and differences between these two books. I wondered about both the impact of the 1985 British television series on public perceptions of the series and the way in which the decision made by the Thomas Y. Cromwell Company to deviate from the publication order of the individual books when it published a compendium of all six of the Mapp and Lucia novels under the title Make Way for Lucia altered the new reader's perceptions of the overall arc of the series.

It is difficult to know what constitutes “a spoiler” when discussing a book published 90 years ago and adapted into a television series that aired over two decades ago thus I will proceed with caution by beginning with general commentary before moving on to material that might contain spoilers. I will warn the reader when I am moving from the former to the latter.

In Queen Lucia the reading audience is introduced to Emmeline Lucas (the titular Queen) and her circle of friends and acquaintances in the village of Riseholme. Lucia, we learn, was a leading figure in the fairly recent gentrification of Riseholme. Benson does not, of course, use that word to describe the process of wealthy people buying up and refurbishing cottages but his description is quite recognizable. Lucia herself might today be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. lists symptoms of NPD as:  
being self-centered and boastful; constantly seeking attention and admiration; considering oneself better than others; exaggerating ones talents and achievements; believing that one is entitled to special treatment; easily hurt although not always showing it; setting unrealistic goals; and taking advantage of others to achieve ones goals.
Lucia shows all those symptoms and yet, as Benson writes her, we do not hate her. The reader comes to understand her and indeed to feel at least amusement and perhaps even compassion for her in her endless (and futile) need to be the “center of attention” among her social circle in Riseholme.

Benson examines with detail and wit the life of the moderately wealthy in England between the wars. No one, or at least no one that really counts, works. Lucia’s husband had amassed “a fortune, comfortable in amount and respectable in origin, at the Bar” after which he put his money into securities and he and wife retired to Riseholme. There they bought a number of cottages and extensively modified them so that they looked impeccably antique from outside while retaining all the pleasures of modernity within. The rest of Lucia's social circle live on military pensions and moderate[2] inheritances. They are well off though clearly not, in their own consideration, really wealthy. Mr. Lucas had been a barrister and Colonel Boucher had presumably served in the recent war and the Quantocks’ generosity was dependent, in part, on the soundness of “ Roumanian oils.” Of course the servants worked as did the clerks in the stores and musicians who were hired to play at special events but except for the opera singer who comes to live in the town no one else who “matters” works for a living.

This is not an England that has remained unchanged by the recent Great War. Lucia and her friends all have maids and valets and cooks but these men and women are treated less like indentured servants they would have been a decade previously. Times were changing, albeit slowly, and one can see glimmers of the England-that-will-be peeking out from behind the façade of England as it always-has-been.

Benson manages to show us both the emptiness and the fullness of the lives of his principals. It is their job to socialize. They must go out to dine and give dinners. They must have something interesting to say and therefore must find many a thing to be interesting. Yet at moments one senses that even they have suspicions that their way of life is dying and will not survive many more body blows.

Benson could write convincingly and with inside knowledge about the world of the wealthy and aristocrats but he seems to have taken Jane Austen’s advice to heart in the construction of this book, “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” We observe each of the families. We come to know some of the individuals very well as we watch them carry on a way of life that is becoming more and more precarious. The changing nature of the economy, immigration and emigration, more education for the “lower classes” and technological changes are making it more difficult and less acceptable for any but the very wealthy and the very poor to live unproductive lives. Those among the very poor would fill their time in an attempt to acquire the bare necessities of life. Those among the very wealthy could fill their time with entertainment often at great expense and provided by others. Members of Lucia’s class and social circle have the necessities of life but cannot afford the great frivolities that distract those at the upper end of the economic scale. And so they must find a way to fill their days with hobbies and entertainments which they invest with great meaning and worth. And occasionally even they seem aware of the threadbare nature of the supports holding up their world.

[1] In my review of Miss Mapp I will discuss the question as to whether it should be placed as the second or the third book in the Mapp and Lucia series.

[2] Moderate in their terms of course. The amount that any of these characters spend on food alone would have paid for the rent, food, clothing and education of at least one lower middle-class family.



How can one best describe ‘what happens’ in Queen Lucia? Two couples become engaged over the course of the book but neither are numbered among the principals of the story. And, although Olga Bracely and Georgie Pillson plot to bring about the marriage of Colonel Boucher and Mrs. Weston to solve the domestic crisis brought about by the impending marriage of his valet to her maid, the engagement is brought about within the course of a few pages and with few problems. The “Guru” first introduced to Riseholme by Daisy Quantock and then commandeered by Lucia turns out to be a curry chef from a London restaurant who, upon realizing that the truth as to his provenance is about to come out, absconds with money and silver pilfered from homes of PIllson, the Lucases and the Quantocks. Yet none of them are willing to report the thefts to the police since they valued the objects he stole far less than the face they would lose if the world came to know that they had “fallen for” the act of an amateur con man. Similarly, the Quantocks after finding out that the “Russian Princess” who conducted séances while staying at their house was  a fraud prefer to burn the evidence rather than have people know that they were taken in.

One can safely say that none of these things is what the book is about.

The book is about Lucia, a woman who misleads herself as much as she misleads the world. As the story opens Lucia is the central and organizing force around whom the society of Riseholme orbits. She is comfortable in power with little concern that anyone among her acquaintances could successfully challenge her. 

The book is also about Georgie who plays with the idea of loving a woman rather than being a courtier but who retreats from that actuality when it crosses his path. As the story opens he is one of the bodies who orbit Lucia. Indeed in some ways he is the most important of her satellites for her husband has little choice in his role and she need not fret that the gravitational influence of a passing star will wrench him from his appointed place in her heavens. Georgie, on the other hand, is not so securely hers. 

The book is also about the ever greater exertions this small group of people find necessary to preserve the stagnation in which they wish to live. They are busy with nothings. They dabble with great energy at things which even they do not value greatly. They do not raise children. They do not tend the sick. They do not write books neither do they actually read books. They play piano and they sing but when a real professional singer [Olga Bracely] comes into their midst the fact that their efforts are all glitter rather than gold becomes obvious. 

The book is also about someone coming to Riseholme from the outside world and, unintentionally stirring up those stagnant waters. Yet even this outsider with the power to break the spell and bring modernity and change to Riseholme chooses to preserve it as it has been for so many years.

So, finally, the book is about a group of people working to hold together a way of life that is doomed to pass.

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