Sunday, April 22, 2012

The clash of the Titans in Tilling

Mapp & Lucia, E.F. Benson

I've been reading my way through The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson for several weeks now.  I only read one or two at a time, rather than through the whole book as I would a novel.  I read a lot of multi-book sagas, and I sometimes find short stories too short, like I hardly get to know the characters before the story ends.  Fay over at Read, Ramble posted about a different approach, with a quote from Mavis Gallant: "Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait."

I'll be honest that I'm also reading slowly because some of them are scaring me silly.  I made the mistake of picking up the book late one night and starting the first story, "The Room in the Tower" (which you can read here).  I had to give up half-way through, and I hesitated a moment before turning off the light afterwards.  My favorite so far, and one of the best ghost stories I have ever read, is "How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery" (which you can read here).

I was reading "Machoan" the other day, and I noticed with pleasure that not only does the narrator live in Tilling, but his house with its garden room and big bow windows reminded me of Mallards, the home first of Elizabeth Mapp and then the immortal Emmeline Lucas.  I got down my copy of Mapp & Lucia to compare the descriptions, and suddenly like Lucia herself I felt "a leading," the irresistible temptation to spend a few days in Tilling.

I think Mapp & Lucia is my favorite of the series.  It opens in the village of Riseholme, scene of so many of Lucia's triumphs and disasters in the early books.  Her first year of widowhood is drawing to an end, and she is ready to emerge from seclusion and take her place in society again.  We meet old friends like Daisy Quantock, who in the absence of Lucia has taken on organizing an Elizabethan pageant, with herself in the starring role. She offers Lucia the supremely insignificant role of Sir Francis Drake's wife.  But Lucia is making other, grander plans.  In the Times, she has seen an advertisement for Mallards, a house to let in Tilling for the summer months.  Though she cannot resist rescuing the pageant from Daisy's inept management, with her faithful courtier Georgie Pillson, she moves on to "fresh woods and pastures new."

Elizabeth Mapp is thrilled to have such an eligible tenant for her house (not to mention one willing to pay her exorbitant charges).  She plans to take Lucia under her wing, to introduce her protegée to Tilling society, to "run her."  Lucia has plans of her own, with skills honed and tactics perfected in the drawing rooms of Riseholme.  The clash of these two Titans is epic, though it may be fought only over Lobster à la Riseholme or the selection of pictures for the Art Society Exhibition.  Part of the great satisfaction of this book is that Mapp proves such a worthy opponent.  No one in Riseholme was really a match for Lucia.

Another great part of the fun is of course the society of Tilling, with Major Benjy, Diva Plaistow, the Wyses with their Rolls-Royce, the "quaint" painter Irene, and the Birmingham-born Scots-speaking Padre and his "wee wifie," all introduced in the earlier book Miss Mapp.  Like us, they take a keen interest in the battle for supremacy, but they can also take an active part and their allegiances constantly shift between the two.  Only Georgie, installed in his own small house, remains consistently loyal to Lucia.

This is such a perfect gem of a book, and now Rye, the model for Tilling, is on my list to visit on my next (someday) visit to England.

10 comments:

Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

I still can't believe I haven't read any of the Mapp & Lucia books! They are on my list of "Books I Know I Will Adore Once I Do Finally Read Them". And Rye is lovely and full of literary history - I hope you get a chance to visit!

Karen K. said...

Okay, that was really, really creepy. I've already put in an order for a used copy of the complete stories -- some of them are horribly expensive! And I've also requested the Complete Mapp & Lucia from my library. I've never read any of them but they sound completely unlike ghost stories!

Lisa May said...

Oh Claire, I think you will! they fit in so well with Thirkell and von Arnim, though they're funnier and sharper and snarkier than both, to my mind.

Karen, I don't know if it was the tower room or the toddling twins you read, but they're both pretty creepy! And I didn't even mention his giant vampire slugs! The Mapp & Lucia stories are completely different & very funny - no ghosts that I can remember - but some of the ghost stories remind me of M&L, like the start of "How Fear Departed" ("I don't know why she wears that insipid shade of blue").

Anbolyn said...

I love ghost stories! The scarier, the better.
I think I, like Claire, will like the Mapp & Lucia books if only I could find them! They are not readily available at any of the libraries in my area, but they sound charming.

Lisa May said...

You will, Anbolyn - like Auntie Mame, they are the perfect antidote to a grey day. I have a mismatched collection of paperbacks - and the introdcution to every one of them talks about how scarce these books have been and how wonderful it is finally to see new editions. I rarely see copies in the used bookstores, I think people hold on to their copies! I am a wimp about scary stories, but I can't stop reading these.

Anbolyn said...

I checked Amazon tonight on a whim and am delighted to see the Mapp & Lucia books available for Kindle for free! I've just downloaded Queen Lucia - can't wait to start!

Lisa May said...

Excellent - that sent me off to check Google books, and the early books in the series are also available there. I so appreciate the amazing availability of older books in ebook versions.

Katrina said...

I love all the Mapp and Lucia books and I also have the series on DVD with the wonderful Geraldine McEwan as Lucia. Au reservoir!

Lisa May said...

Au reservoir indeed! I haven't seen the series yet. Have you read any of the sequels? I think there is a new one just out.

Katrina said...

I've read Lucia Triumphant by Tom Holt, worth reading but not as good as Benson as I recall. It was first published in 1986.