Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mrs Ames, by E. F. Benson

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Chronicling the complicated social manoeuvrings of a group of society queen bees, Mrs Ames is a comic novel from the master of the genre.  E. F. Benson writes in an effortlessly polished prose, describing a series of events that quickly escalate into high farce as the novel’s eponymous heroine joins the Suffragette movement and involves herself in radical politics. If you like Nancy Mitford’s sense of the absurd and enjoy Jane Austen’s wit and sharp social observation, then Mrs Ames is sure to please.

Edward Frederic Benson (1867-1940) wrote a prodigious amount during his lifetime, publishing over a hundred books. He wrote novels, biographies and memoirs, but is best remembered for his social comedies, the Lucia series. The six Lucia novels that comprised the series attracted such ardent fans as Nancy Mitford and Noel Coward.

Mrs Ames, a 1912 novel by Benson is less well known, and is revived by Bloomsbury in this elegant reprint. Anyone who has enjoyed the hilarious comedy of Mapp and Lucia (1935), with its warring society queens and their Machiavellian plotting, will relish this earlier comedy.

Set in comfortably well-off Riseborough, the novel chronicles the complicated chessboard movements that make up the social life of that wealthy place. Mrs Ames rules the roost as the undisputed trendsetter and queen of the social calender. With her little parlour tricks and other clandestine stratagems, she manages to keep one step ahead of the social pack. When she says jump, the society cream of Riseborough plead ‘how high’?

But her position is not secure in this highly competitive world. When newcomer Mrs Evans comes on the scene, and throws a masked costume party, the Riseborough hierarchy is thrown into confusion. To make matters worse, a flirtation between Mrs Ames’ husband, Lyndhurst, and Mrs Evans is started. This throws Mrs Ames off the psychological deep end, forcing her to join the radical suffragette movement. Things reach a climax when Mrs Ames leads a public demonstration calling for women’s right to vote. 

E. F. Benson is a consummate comedy writer. He mixes a lapidary prose with a wonderful sense of the absurd. Every page is a joy to read and the novel sustains a steady comic momentum throughout its entirety. While there is an overall surrealistic feel to the comedy of Mrs Ames, Benson is also a sharp social observer and can draw compelling psychological portraits. In this manner he somewhat resembles Jane Austen, by mixing comedy with acute social portraits.

Mrs Ames is a light yet absorbing entertainment, from an exemplar in the great English comic tradition.

Mrs Ames, by E. F. Benson. Published by Bloomsbury. ISBN: 9781408808580 RRP: $19.99