Monday, 19 January 2009

Mapp & Lucia

In a rash moment, I thought I'd pretend to add depth to my blog by reviewing the books I read. I'm procrastinating on getting my own book (a) perfect and (b) off to publishers, so am going to show the wide range of my literary education. Well, what I got for Christmas and other stories.

So to Mapp and Lucia. This is a Penguin Classic, written by E F Benson in 1935 (well, possibly written before then, as that's the date of publication, but it gives you a general idea as to its age and style). Now, before I go any further, you should know that as a general rule I like modern books: Dickens never did anything for me, although one of my unwritten New Year's Resolutions is to try one of his books. Sometime. At some point this year. Perhaps.

Mapp and Lucia, it turns out, is the fourth in a series of six books about the two title characters: Miss Mapp and Mrs Emmeline Lucas, known as Lucia. The good news is that you certainly don't have to read the first three to enjoy this one: it stands alone as a book of quality. The characters are clearly defined from the start and, having got myself settled into upper-middle-class 1930's home-counties' Britain I was delighted to lose myself in the character's battles.

Oh yes, battles is the word. Except for when it is war. The story revolves around the one-upmanship of these two formidable ladies. Since reading the book I have learnt that there was a television series of it in the 1980s with Prunella Scales and Geraldine McEwan in the title roles, so you can get an idea of the characters from this!

Following the death of her husband and a year of self-imposed mourning Lucia decides she needs to be back at the helm (i.e. the centre of attention in her village). However, this is difficult for her to do without losing face, so on seeing an advert for the lease of a house in Tilling for the summer months, she decides to move there. The house is Miss Mapp's: in her turn, she moves into another house in the village and thus a chain of temporary summer moves evolves, each getting a better rent than they pay.

Miss Mapp can't let go, though. She noses her way back into her own house, ostensibly for an egg whisk or some other such triviality, but really to spy on her tenant. Lucia, with her sidekick and friend Georgie in the house next door, turns to become the centre of the social life in the village, hosting dinner parties and bridge evenings ... often without Miss Mapp.

One of the delightful things about the book is that you actually like the characters, even though both ladies are essentially such awful people! I wouldn't want to know either of them personally (though given my ability at bridge I'm guessing they also wouldn't want to know me). You can't help feeling sorry for Miss Mapp, previously in command of her village and friends, now being usurped by the slightly smarter, sharper Lucia. And you do wonder how the author is going to fix it so that Lucia does play Elizabeth at the village fete, as surely she must, whilst neither being present in the village nor cast in the role. Finally, the image of both ladies floating away on an upturned table will last with me a long, long time.

All in all, it was a thoroughly good read and not something I would have picked up or thought of if I hadn't been given it for Christmas. 


Working mum said...

I've read all of the Lucia books including the two extra written after E F Benson's death. I loved them! So witty and clever.

I also watched the TV series in the 80s (Nigel Hawthorn was a fantastic Georgie, too) They sometimes repeat it on Itv 3 or 4. Well worth looking out for.

Troy said...

I think you'll find that Dickens was modern once. You were just slow buying it (waiting for the paperback to come out?).

Catharine Withenay said...

WM - you are so right. The others are now on my 'to be read in the future' list. It is quite a long list...

Troy - thanks for this erudite piece of information. Given the fact my father has, I believe, three complete sets of Dickens novels I think my slowness is simply in taking them off the shelf... By the way, I loved your book review - thank you!

cheshire wife said...

Thank you for writing that post. Those books sound like they are worth reading.

Ladybird World Mother said...

Oh how lovely. I think this book review malarky is brilliant.. thanks for this. Sounds a perfect sort of a read for this time of year... curled up next to the fire. (I sound like a cat... or a newspaper) X

Catharine Withenay said...

Cheshire wife - thank you for coming by - they certainly are (well, the one I read was!)

LWM: I read Troy's after deciding to write this (couldn't get the camera to work to take the photo of the book, couldn't find non-copyrighted picture online, going quietly mad...) and - yes - it is like a big blogging book group! What fun!

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