Should you ever need a lesson in passive-aggressiveness and/or the art of one-upmanship, look no further than the Queen Lucia series by E. F. Benson.
There are six books in the series, all of which are Georgian satires, focused on the everyday affairs of the upper-middle-class residents of the fictional villages of Tilling and Riseholme. I read the first two books, Queen Lucia and Miss Mapp.
There are similarities between the books. In both, there is no single plot – instead, the comings-and-goings of people to town; the politics of bridge parties and evening suppers; the providence of recipes; the importance of where one has had a new tea gown made; and a multitude of other minor occurrences drive the story.
The hours of the morning between breakfast and lunch were the time which the inhabitants of Riseholme chiefly devoted to spying on each other.
The earnestness that Benson allows his characters only accentuates the satire, with great results –
If the records of history contained any similar instance of such treachery and low cunning as was involved in this plot of Diva’s to dress Janet in the rosebud chintz, Miss Mapp would have liked to be told clearly and distinctly what it was.
And when lines such as “There was a game of croquet that wouldn’t come to an end, and my life has been guided by only one principle, and that is to finish a game of croquet whatever happens” seem perfectly reasonable, you know the author has done a very good job of immersing you in another world, even if that world is a rather shallow one.
Queen Lucia revolves around Mrs. Emmeline Lucas, Lucia to her intimates (she likes to pepper her conversation with Italian phrases). Lucia is the self-appointed queen of Riseholme. Despite occasional attempts to overthrow her – new members of the social circle can cause awful upsets – Lucia manages to keep the village residents on their toes with her schemes, competitive attitude and charm.
One of Lucia’s greatnesses lay in the fact that when she found anybody out in some act of atrocious meanness, she never indulged in any idle threats of revenge: it was sufficient that she knew, and would take suitable steps on the earliest occasion.
Secondary characters sparkle, notably Lucia’s dear friend Georgie Pillson, a bachelor who enjoys embroidery, watercolours and ‘polishing his knick-knacks’ (he poses no threat to Lucia’s husband) –
He did portraits as well in pastel; these were of two types, elderly ladies in lace caps with a row of pearls, and boys in cricket shirts with their sleeves rolled up. He was not very good at eyes, so his sitters always were looking down, but he was excellent at smiles, and the old ladies smiled patiently and sweetly, and the boys gaily.
And Mrs Daisy Quantock, Lucia’s neighbour and ‘friendly’ rival, who has a penchant for trends in spiritual health. Lucia judiciously allows Daisy to ‘test the waters’ with her latest obsessions, before swooping in and claiming the discoveries as her own. When Daisy contracts her own ‘guru’ to teach her yoga, Lucia hijacks him –
She would have Yoga evenings in the hot August weather, at which, as the heat of the day abated, graceful groups should assemble among the mottos in the garden and listen to high talk on spiritual subjects. They would adjourn to delicious moonlit suppers in the pergola, or if the moon was indisposed – she could not be expected to regulate the affairs of the moon as well as of Riseholme – there would be dim séances and sandwiches in the smoking-parlour.
Miss Mapp is set in the seaside village of Tilling and although its star, Miss Elizabeth Mapp, is not as sophisticated as Lucia, she is nonetheless a formidable force and has her neighbours and ‘friends’ scuttling about at her behest.
Her face was of high vivid colour and was corrugated by chronic rage and curiosity.
Again, it’s the secondary characters that shine, including the underhanded Miss Susan Poppit, who creates chaos with impromptu bridge parties, and Major Benjamin Flint, whom Miss Mapp has been trying to marry for years –
That he had seen service in India was, indeed, probable by his referring to lunch as tiffin, and calling to his parlour-maid with the ejaculation of “Quai-hai.” As her name was Sarah, this was clearly a reminiscence of days in bungalows.
Both Lucia and Miss Mapp are quite dreadful – pretentious and hypocritical – and yet, Benson’s gently mocking humour and unabashed exposure of their innermost, petty thoughts makes for sparkling reading.
4/5 Charmingly ridiculous.
I received my copy of Queen Lucia and Miss Mapp from the publisher, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. The BBC released a miniseries, Mapp & Lucia, in 2014. An earlier series, made in the eighties and also titled Mapp & Lucia, starred Prunella Scales.
“Come into my house instantly, and we’ll drink vermouth. Vermouth always makes me brilliant unless it makes me idiotic, but we’ll hope for the best.”
The ultimate vermouth cocktail? A Manhattan.