Thursday, July 26, 2012

Queen Lucia, by E. F. Benson

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Queen Lucia is the first in the Lucia series of six comic novels E. F. Benson wrote lampooning the pretensions and ambitions of affluent middle class English life. On the surface the world of Queen Lucia consists of glittering garden parties, tastefully kept houses and triumphant amateur performances, but underneath the worrying mood is one of constant status anxiety.

If the philosopher Thorstein Veblen were to present his famous The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) in a fictionalised form, it would perhaps read like the comic novels of E. F. Benson. While Veblen maintained a dry wit when describing the useless pursuits of the middle classes, Benson takes a more overt relish in this subject matter. His satires veer close towards being frivolous entertainments in themselves, but are elevated by Benson’s sharp wit and observational powers.Like all good writers he sticks to the milieu that he knows best, but takes a scalpel to it. Every aspect of this comfortably well-off social strata - its anxieties, aesthetics and aspirations - is examined in minute details. In this quest no stone is left unturned.

Queen Lucia (1920) is the first novel in the Lucia series. Another five were to follow, with the most famous being Mapp and Lucia (1931). The novels are set in the village of Riseholme, where seemingly idle husbands and wives pursue with vigour garden parties, mini concerts and other assorted artistic frolics. Fashionable life revolves around having an Indian guru, or befriending a Russian Princess who claims psychic powers. Opera singers are especially prized, until these idols are touched and the gilt comes off on the worshipper’s hands.

The women of Riseholme are ruthlessly competitive, always wanting to be one up on each other. This socially cut-throat world (garden parties are described like military campaigns) means that every one must maintain a frenetic pace, just to keep up. This is certainly ironic seeing how much leisure time everyone has. The point that can be inferred (even if it’s not made explicitly), is that affluence doesn’t erase anxieties, but simply creates new ones. E. F. Benson was perhaps lucky in that he created a useful job for himself in being a writer and chronicler of this social set, otherwise without this distancing mechanism he may have ended up a player.

Another remarkable and curious thing about Queen Lucia: it was published in 1920, only two years after the First World War. Like P. G. Wodehouse, E. F. Benson seems to have seen no need to make any references to the war. If you read 1912’s Mrs Ames, then follow it with 1920’s Queen Lucia, the style and subject matter follows seamlessly.

E. F. Benson’s lapidary prose and shrewd powers of observation draw a brilliant portrait of an affected and superficial society, driven almost to distraction with what Alain de Botton described as ‘status anxiety’. On the surface his novels are light entertainments, but closer reading shows them to be expertly performed middle-class anatomies.

The Complete Mapp and Lucia Volume One, by E. F. Benson. Published by Wordsworth Classics. ISBN: 9781840226737  RRP: $6.95