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.