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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Corner – February 2015 (1)

lucia

Queen Lucia – E.F.Benson

One of the highlights of the 2014 Festival of Mammon for me was Steve Pemberton’s delicious adaptation of E.F.Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books. I had always wanted to get round to reading Benson’s oeuvre but rather like that philanthropic act I am forever meaning to do something more exciting, pressing or diverting has always come up. But thanks to Mr Pemberton I finally got round to downloading the series of six books, of which Queen Lucia, published in 1920, is the first.

For anyone who picks up the book with the TV series fresh in their mind, they are in for quite a shock. The book is set in Riseholme which was modelled on Broadway in Worcestershire – no Tilling in this book. And no Miss Mapp! And the fake guru whom Lucia lures away from Mrs Quantock and then who is unmasked as a curry chef from London rather than a Brahmin from Benares has nothing to do with Miss Mapp. And Lucia’s faux command of la bella lingua is cruelly exposed at a soiree by her rival and usurper, Olga Bracely, rather than Lucia avoiding all social engagements to preserve the façade of a command of Italian as in the TV adaptation.

The book is a coruscating satire making its points with subtlety and great wit. For me it doesn’t have the moments of laugh-aloud humour or flights of poetic beauty that you would find in the best of Wodehouse but, in its own way, is a more profound piece of work.

On the one hand we have a particularly focused satirical attack on the propensity for social climbing amongst the English upper middle classes in the period between the two world wars. The protagonist, Emmeline Lucas, aka Queen Lucia, is the high priestess of all matters cultural in the rural backwater that is Riseholme. She is the epitome of pretentiousness and rules her domain with a rod of iron. She disdains London culture.

Riseholme society reserves the mornings for spying each other and congregates on the village green for their daily parliaments at which the latest tittle-tattle is exchanged and the dynamic of daily life is to get one over their neighbours. Benson’s stiletto makes carnage of this twee existence.

If this seems to be too tied to the era in which it was written the satire works on a more universal and general level. It is a satirical attack on gentrification. Surburbanites descend on a rural idyll and then set about transforming it into an ersatz and saccharine version of the real thing – Lucia has transformed her cottage into a faux Elizabethan (Tudor) abode – without any regard for the feelings and sensibilities of the locals. This is as true today as it was then and Benson rightly fires his satirical barbs at the target.

The style is engaging, the characters are developed well and despite the protagonist’s pomposity and domineering character the narrative keeps the reader engaged. I am looking forward to starting the next one, Miss Mapp, but will leave that pleasure for a few weeks otherwise, I think, it would be too much too soon.

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