“Too Tarsome”: E. F. Benson, Mapp and Lucia

mappandluciaI almost didn’t finish reading Mapp and Lucia. I’m glad now that I did, not because I take any uncompromising stand on whether one should or should not finish every book one starts, but because if I’d put it aside at the point I’d reached as of yesterday, I would never have known that the heroines get swept out to sea on a kitchen table. That was a surprise! And when they come back, thus thoroughly upsetting everyone who has (with oh, such difficulty!) come to terms with their loss, not to mention their homes and possessions and fortunes — OK, I admit it, it’s wonderfully done, with the perfect balance of malice and brio, which also perfectly describes Mapp and Lucia themselves. For people who like that sort of thing, Mapp and Lucia is definitely the kind of thing they’ll like.

I don’t really like it, though, which is why I was tempted to give it up half way through. It’s not just that there’s nobody in the novel who is worth anything. That’s true of Vanity Fair too, after all, and Vanity Fair is a novel I greatly admire. But then Vanity Fair is an impassioned indictment of the greed, selfishness, and hypocrisy of the world its characters have created. Mapp and Lucia is too much fun to be read as social criticism or satire; it takes too much pleasure — or allows us to take too much pleasure — in the machinations and lies, the pretense and double-dealing. Who will play Elizabeth I in the fête? Will Lucia’s complete ignorance of Italian be exposed? Will Mapp get away with the recipe for Lobster à la Riseholme? Will Mapp’s strategems for keeping Georgie and Lucia’s pictures out of the exhibit be successful? These are the pressing questions of the novel, but the answers to them are for our entertainment only. They don’t mean anything. Nothing in the story matters, except as a move in the absurd, competitive, hilarious game of snakes and ladders Mapp and Lucia are playing with each other’s lives.

It’s not that there isn’t amusement to be had. Benson is very clever, and both heroines are memorable. When they might be dead, it’s not just life in the village but the novel itself that deflates. As Georgie reflects,

There was nothing to look forward to, and he realized how completely Lucia and her manoeuvres and her indomitable vitality and her deceptions and her greatnesses had supplied the salt to life. He had never been in the least in love with her, but somehow she had been as absorbing as any wayward and entrancing mistress. ‘It will be too dull for anything,’ thought he, ‘and there won’t be a single day in which I shan’t miss her most dreadfully.’

But when she does come back, it’s just more of the same. It’s smart and witty, but a bit nasty: it’s what Pride and Prejudice would be stripped of everyone but the Bingleys, or Persuasion with only Sir Walter Elliot and Mrs. Clay — or Vanity Fair without the narrator. I seem to prefer my social comedy served up with a hint of conscience, or even of pathos. At first Mapp and Lucia was good for a laugh, or at least a chortle, but after a time I found it (as Georgee would say) “too tarsome.”

7 Comments to “Too Tarsome”: E. F. Benson, Mapp and Lucia

  1. Min's Gravatar Min
    December 5, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Spot-on with the E F Benson critique, Rohan: you’ve pinpointed the moral vacuum at the heart of the work. Spite and style-over-substance it is … Although I have to admit that the author has himself identified certain undying features of the English provincial class sytem (with which I have no patience whatsoever, having been reluctanctly re-acquainted with same during the past 3 years! These people even manage to be nasty about cancer patients; such shallowness, er, knows no bounds). ‘More of same’ just about sums ’em up, I’m afraid: both the books and the kind of people they caricature. Ultimately, the whole thing is about small-mindedness and self-congratulation, nothing else.
    Give me Nancy Mitford any day.
    Love the comparisons with stripped-down Austen!
    Yes, Thackeray actually packs a hefty moral punch with ‘Vanity Fair’. There’s Amelia and Dobbin to counterbalance the excesses/outrages of Becky and her partner-du-jour. Although Becky has to be an attractive character in many ways, otherwise (a) how would she get away with so much of what she does, and (b) why would most readers persist? And, yes, you’re right: the authorial voice is that of a conscience firmly rooted in sound values.

    • Robin's Gravatar Robin
      September 20, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      While there is not a “come-uppance”, there are hints of greatness in Lucia (when Pepe dies, for instance, and the relationship between Georgie and the opera singer), that truly stand out in my memory. Those moments when someone does the “right thing” and some little filament of true goodness vibrates in one of the main characters. Less so with Mapp than with Lucia, I think.

  2. December 7, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I shall use this review to further justify my never having read nor ever going to read Mapp and Lucia. Something about it has always put me off. Now I know just what to say it is. I’ll stick with the Mitfords and Ms. Austen.

  3. Bill from PA's Gravatar Bill from PA
    December 7, 2014 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps perversely, this post caused me to pick up the Lucia saga where I had left it a few years ago and read Lucia in London. It never occurred to me to look for any real bite or moral viewpoint in these books; I thought it and its predecessor Queen Lucia had no ambition beyond being comic novels, senza lagrime as Lucia might say, packed full of silly characters doing silly things. Even so, I find Benson’s achievement pretty remarkable; writing a successful comic novel is a challenge to begin with, and he has created a series that continues to amuse after almost a century. I will read the next in the series, Miss Mapp, but probably only after another year or so; more than one of these novels at a time would indeed become “too tarsome”.

    How do you and the commenters feel about Wodehouse? I’ve only read Right Ho, Jeeves, but his comic world seems to me to be created in a spirit similar to that of Benson’s Lucia books.

    By the way, my omnibus edition of the Lucia / Mapp novels has a brief introduction by Nancy Mitford, who refers to “the splendid creature, the great, the wonderful, Lucia” and says:

    The art of these books lies in their simplicity. The jokes seem quite obvious and are often repeated: we can never have enough of them. In Lucia in London, Daisy gets a Ouija board and makes mystical contact with an Egyptian called Abfou. Now Abfou hardly ever says anything but “Lucia is a Snob,” yet we hang on his lips and are thrilled every time Georgie says, “I am going to Daisy’s to weedj.”

  4. Min's Gravatar Min
    December 31, 2014 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    I think my main beef with this series is the general high campness of it all. The female protagonists are essentially drag queens; shrilly competitive bitchery is no substitute for wit, and the overall effect is of a profound misogyny at the heart of the work. Women are depicted as pathetically pretentious, aimless and useless. Obviously, only the men can actually do stuff … yawn!
    Bonne année, Rohan.

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