Sunday, May 17, 2015

Miss Mapp, by E. F. Benson

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

The second book in the Mapp and Lucia series introduces the domineering and ridiculous queen of Tilling, Miss Elizabeth Mapp.

Between 1920 and 1939 Edward Frederic Benson (1867-1940) wrote six novels in his famous Mapp and Lucia series. Recently filmed by the BBC, the novels have achieved an almost cult-like status. E. F. Benson’s name may not be as well known as his contemporaries, such as Nancy Mitford, WH Auden and Noel Coward, yet these famous authors collectively placed an ad in the 1940s looking for out-of-print Mapp and Lucia novels. “We will pay anything for Lucia books,” declared the advertisement in The Times.

The Mapp and Lucia novels on the surface are light and trivial comedies that rather lovingly satirise the English upper middle-classes. Despite the utterly superficial subject matter - bridge party controversies, fashion disasters and other calamities - Benson uses the most precise language, as though he were trying to explain Newtonian physics or the theory of relativity. Nothing is too small to avoid his gaze. Hence every slightly raised eyebrow, every barely noticeable quiver of the lips, is weighed for its full social, political and economic import.

Miss Mapp is the second in the series, published in 1922 and introduces Elizabeth Mapp, reigning queen of Tilling, modelled on Benson’s own home town of Rye. Elizabeth Mapp occupies one of the premier houses of the town and is so positioned that she can easily spy on everyone’s comings and goings from her elevated garden room. She strives to lead Tilling in matters of style and etiquette, but often finds herself falling behind and outwitted by social competitors.

It was a joy to go back to the world of Mapp and Lucia. It was also curious to speculate how much of Mapp was based on Benson himself: Mapp’s obsessive distaste for the expression “pop”, as in “I’ll just pop into this shop”, seems autobiographical. In fact Mapp’s house, Mallards, is actually based on Benson’s house in Rye, Lamb House. No wonder that while the tone is satirical, there is also a warmth in the writing.

How wonderful to think that Nancy Mitford, WH Auden and Noel Coward, if they were alive today, could easily get their hands on Lucia novels at such a low price.

The Complete Mapp and Lucia, Volume One, by E. F. Benson. Published by Wordsworth Classics. ISBN: 978184022673 RRP: $6.95

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