Too, Too Tilling For Words

I came to E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia stories sometime early in the 1980s, partly because I was already interested in Benson as a writer of ghost stories, partly because Aubrey Woods adapted and read some of the Mapp and Lucia stories on Radio 4 (and seems to have dramatised them as well). His characterisations were such that even now, several tv adaptations later, when I think about Benson’s stories, I still hear Woods’ Lucia trilling ‘Georgie’ or ‘Peppino’ in my head, and imagine her to be a more animated, more nakedly scheming version of Margaret Thatcher, and with slightly better dress sense. His Mapp I don’t really remember but Prunella Scales seemed to me to capture the essence of her.

The other reason I’ve maintained an interest in the stories is, of course, that I live not so far away from Rye, the original of Tilling. It’s a brisk half-hour drive away, or a more leisurely train or bus ride away. Paul Kincaid and I have visited it more than a few times over the years. I like Rye. It is very pretty and teeters on the brink of chocolate-box tweeness, especially in summer, when the tourists flock in, before suddenly remembering at the last moment that it is actually a real place, where people still live and work. I always used to enjoy visiting Lamb House, the original of Mallards, and Benson’s home for many years. Not that you’d have known it when we went there. The tenants at the time were very pro-Henry James, an earlier resident, and one had to look really, really hard for any sign of Benson’s having been there at all. (For that matter, there was no indication that another author, Rumer Godden, had ever lived there.)

And so, Christmas 2014 brings another tv adaptation of Benson’s stories, in three parts, on BBC1. I’d assumed Miranda Richardson would be playing Lucia, so was rather startled to find she was playing Mapp (and with monstrous false teeth that seemed to distort her face. It’s true that Benson appears to have had some slight preoccupation with women with large teeth – his story, ‘Mrs Amworth’, seems to be about a vampiric version of Miss Mapp – but I can’t believe he had in mind anything along the lines of Richardson’s truly alarming dentition). Anna Chancellor’s Lucia looked pretty but that was about all you could say for her. The supporting cast all looked lovely and I really enjoyed their knowing glances and exchanges as they humoured two overweening egos.

Steve Pemberton had been playing somewhat fast and loose with the stories; the episode with the fake guru occurred in Queen Lucia, before Lucia left her beloved Riseholme and moved to Tilling, and other things had been moved around. Initially, I found myself in full ‘it’s a travesty’ mode for the first episode, before deciding that it might not be full-on Benson, but actually I was quite enjoying it. It seemed to me to catch something of the spirit, even if it was a very brisk trot through a few of the best-known set-pieces.

And then I decided that given I hadn’t read the stories for at least twenty-five years, probably longer, I really ought to revisit them. I wasn’t feeling well and I fancied a light read.

Now, I could turn this article into a list of all the things Pemberton got wrong, left out, and so forth, but that’s not particularly interesting, and even I have grasped the idea that tv adaptations are not necessarily faithful to the text (but please don’t start me on series 3of Father Brown otherwise we’ll be here all night). And anyway, that’s not actually what I started thinking about when I reread the books.

Instead, what struck me was how much I had misremembered them. Or maybe, how differently I see them as a 50-something from when I first read them as a 20-something. Because what I recall as being light, frothy, witty, and amusing has with age become, to quote Georgie, quite ‘tar’some’.

The first novel, Queen Lucia (1920), is set in Riseholme, the village where Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) and her husband, Philip, live in a house that comprises two cottages knocked into one, part-modernised, part retaining its original features(such as the spit in the fireplace, diamond glass windowpanes, and no electricity – and period furniture). Lucia has an Elizabethan bowls alley, and a flower border devoted entirely to the flowers mentioned in Ophelia’s famous speech in Hamlet. She spends her days flitting from literary appreciation to piano practice to learning Greek and Latin, presiding over the cultural life of the village. The village itself seems to be little more than a stage set – to take one example, the village stocks, placed by the pond, were presented by the Lucases. Everything is very Ye Olde, and deliberately so. It’s laughably pretentious, and that of course is the point. It is meant to be toe-curling as well as funny.

But I was struck by how quickly it stopped being funny and just carried on being embarrassing. Perhaps it is that Daisy Quantock isn’t really sufficient as a sparring partner for Lucia. She may get caught out once in a while but there is never any real doubt as to who is in charge, and it is Lucia. Her iron will has turned Riseholme into an ongoing village pageant, with Lucia in the starring role, of course. It’s a very pretty sort of life but very unwholesome, for the reader as well as most of its participants. And yet, while everyone seems to chafe against the rule of Queen Lucia, no one really protests. Lucia imposes her ghastly cultural totalitarianism on everyone and no one ever quite has the nerve to contest it. (Though I don’t doubt they heaved a sigh of relief the moment her car set off down the road for Tilling.)

Lucia in London (1927) is interesting in that we see Lucia as a brazen social climber among other brazen social climbers, being observed by people who know precisely what they’re all up to. It’s not so much comedy as fairly sharp social observation. What is left ambiguous is whether Lucia has admitted to herself that she simply isn’t cutting it in London society but is swimming in a shoal of other people just like her. In the end, it’s the expense that seems to be the problem with spending much time in London, but equally, one can’t help thinking that it is the sheer hard work of trying to keep up the pretence that sends Lucia back to Riseholme.

In Miss Mapp (1922), one might argue that Elizabeth Mapp performs a similar role to Lucia, keeping Tilling society firmly under control, but I’d suggest that there are several significant differences. First, while Mapp is a social arbiter, I don’t think her image of what Tilling ought to be is as clear as Lucia’s is for Riseholme, and later for Tilling. Second, I’d suggest that Tilling society does, to a certain extent, rather enjoy the conformity of regular bridge nights and little suppers, and so on. And yet, the Tillingites are a most unruly lot when it comes to change, and they will resist it. Variety is one thing, but they like their rituals, too. Nights in and nights out all have their regular patterns – everyone knows where everyone else will be and what they will be doing. If Lucia imposes patterns on people by taking actual charge of social events, Mapp is concerned with social conformity: why do Captain Puffin and Major Benjy seem to keep such late hours, and so forth. Even Quaint Irene’s lack of conformity conforms to everyone’s expectations of her as their resident non-conformist.

Probably the most successful novel of the six is Mapp and Lucia (1931), when the two women finally meet and battle it out for social supremacy in Tilling. Lucia represents the force for change, Mapp stands for tradition and continuity, yet they are so evenly matched, neither can ever achieve supremacy. And in the meantime, the other inhabitants of Tilling are quick to criticise. Something that is never properly explored in the adaptations is the role of Godiva (Diva) Plaistow. If Georgie is Lucia’s confidant and knowing facilitator, Diva might best be described as Mapp’s conscience. She has a very disconcerting habit of telling Mapp the truth, to her face, and pointing out her foolishness. This is something that never happens to Lucia, who is so very often protected from nastiness. Oh, she is aware that people don’t like her, or have snubbed her for one reason or another, but she never seems to me to fully grasp why that might be, whereas Diva is always on hand to make it quite clear to Mapp when she has overstepped the mark.

I was struck too by how much darker the books are, generally. Major Benjy is less genial and tolerant than Steve Pemberton would have us believe. In the adaptation, he and Georgie exchange glances and you can see them thinking, ‘women, eh?). In the novels, Major Benjy is deeply suspicious of Georgie’s apparent effeminacy, to the point of not terribly covert homophobia. Georgie’s grimacing distaste for manly pastimes is set against the comedy masculinity of his huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ and dog-owning sisters. He and Lucia both express a distaste for sex, in or out of marriage, which is apparent justification for their marrying, for convenience and companionship after Lucia is widowed. Mapp’s eventual marriage to Major Benjy is followed by an extraordinary interlude in which she either pretends to be pregnant or does experiences a phantom pregnancy. It is as if she has decided that the only way she can triumph over Lucia is by suggesting that she and Major Benjy do have a sexual relationship, unlike Lucia and Georgie.

And I have to face the fact that the novels are also rather repetitive. Mapp trumps Lucia, Lucia trumps Mapp, stalemate ensues. There will be another panic as to whether Lucia will have to appear to speak Italian when in fact she doesn’t, or be obliged to play all of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, when she can really only play the first movement. There are occasional victories for one or the other, including the story where Mapp loses badly on investments and she and the Major are forced to leave Mallards, which Lucia, who has done well, promptly buys from Mapp, who is then exiled to Lucia’s Grebe Cottage, which is of course prone to flooding. It’s not so much a comedy as rather mean-spirited.

In the end, I find that much as I liked the books when I was younger, I do not like them half as much as I once did. Which actually makes me rather sad.