Friday, October 7, 2011

But why Prunella Scales?

I have been reading (and rereading) quite a bit of E. F. Benson lately. Benson is probably best known today for the novels about Miss Mapp and Emmeline Lucas [1] published between 1920 and 1939 and later bundled together and published in omnibus form in 1977 as Make Way for Lucia. Benson's writing styles (for he had more than one) and the things about which he wrote (he had several distinct subjects of interest) were extremely popular during his lifetime but subsequent to his death and the end of the Second World War his books fell out of print.

Benson's fortunes revived in the 1970s as many of his books began once again to be available in print however it is likely that many know Benson (and his characters Mapp and Lucia) more from the BBC Mapp and Lucia series than from the novels themselves. I did not see that television adaptation before I first started to read Benson. I chanced on a description of one of the Mapp and Lucia books in a critical review of another book I had been reading and I tracked down a copy of the The Worshipful Lucia in the local library. I soon began to hunt down every Benson book I could find. Since most were out of print I either found old battered Benson books in used bookstores and I downloaded those that were now in the public domain from online sources.

Yesterday I was trying to trace the origin of a theme (and style of writing) that I had noticed in Benson's writing as early as 1912 (Mrs. Ames) and in full flower by 1929 (Paying Guests). I wondered if there were hints of that theme in his earliest books so I pulled out my copy of Dodo: A Detail of the Day first published 1893 and first read by me in a battered old copy I no longer own. My current copy is one of three Dodo novels published together 1986 in Dodo: An Omnibus the cover proclaims.....a "New Introduction by Prunella Scales." 'Oh,' I thought, 'I hadn't realized that Scales had been a Benson aficionado before she was cast as Miss Mapp in the BBC series.' The second sentence of the introduction disabused me of that notion
I had read very few of his books before 1984, when I swallowed all the Lucia novels at once while preparing to attempt Miss Mapp in a television serial.
Scales was not familiar with any of the Dodo books before she was asked to write the introduction to the omnibus. The introduction itself is competently written but has as much depth and insight as one would expect from a high school student's "treatment" of an author. It doesn't help me as a reader to understand the world of the book, it doesn't help me as reader to understand Benson as a writer, and it doesn't really help the reader to place Dodo into the context of its time.

I understand why someone at The Hogarth Press decided to ask Scales to write the introduction since the BBC production of Make Way for Lucia did much to revive Benson's popularity. Scales was Miss Mapp for many people who had not read the books previous to their television adaptation. One can imagine the logic "people associate Scales with Benson so if we get her name on a Benson book it will help to sell the book." That may even have worked. However, that decision distresses me for two reasons.

First, I do not begrudge Scales the right to have opinions about the Dodo books but I wish that they had spent the money instead on a less famous but better qualified person who could have written informedly and usefully about the book(s) and the author. No reader who knows Benson only from the BBC adaptation and is not used to reading books written in the latter years of the 19th century is going to find Dodo an easy book to read. Putting Scales name on the cover may have sold more copies of the Dodo omnibus but only, I fear, at the cost of readers who never "got" the books and never bought another Benson (from The Hogart Press or any other publisher.)

Second, even in the few pages of the introduction Scales convinced me that she misunderstands Benson in much the same way as many writers of his time (and his subjects of interest) are misunderstood by people who come across them without the appropriate context. Scales writes of Benson:
one must not be too frivolous about this dear, gentle, funny writer, with his romantic cynicism and demure extravagance, his faultless ear and wicked tongue
and I watch Scales' (in my opinion dreadfully misconceived) performance of Miss Mapp and can only think how little she understands Benson. Benson could be icy, insightful, cynical and cruel. He had seen some of the horrors of life. He was for some time mayor of Rye (the 'real world' Tilling.) He was the son of an Archbishop of Chanterbury and the sibling of writers and intellectuals. None of his generation of the family married and had children. His parents had a famously "chilly" marriage and once widowed his mother lived the rest of her life with a woman friend. Underneath the glittering surface of Benson's books one can often glimpse the emptiness and hopelessness of the lives of his characters.

So, the answer to "why Scales" is--a short-sighted marketing scheme that did nothing to build a readership that would continue to buy Benson's less famous books and that helped to perpetuate a facile understanding of his best selling books.

[1] Queen Lucia (1920), Miss Mapp (1922), Lucia in London (1927), Mapp and Lucia (1931), Lucia's Progress aka The Worshipful Lucia (1935) and Trouble for Lucia (1939)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.