As you might have observed, I’ve changed the design of my blog and also added a few details leading directly to my latest obsession: the ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels by British writer E. F. Benson. They are brilliant, I love them and will shamelessly tell you all about them. So sit back, grab a glass a wine (or alternatively one of redcurrant fool) and enjoy.
The Novels There are six novels altogether:
- Queen Lucia (1920): introducing us to the novels’ principal heroine who rules over the village of Riseholme
- Miss Mapp (1922): a peep into the life of Miss Mapp, queen bee of the village of Tilling
- Lucia in London (1927): no Mapp here, since they haven’t met yet, but Lucia has inherited a London house and spends the season there
- Mapp and Lucia (1931): Lucia summers in Tilling and choses it as her new home and kingdom – Mapp begs to differ
- Lucia’s Progress (1935): Lucia becomes the Queen of Tilling, Mapp fights her like a force of nature
- Trouble for Lucia (1939): Lucia’s newly gained power goes to her head, but she doesn’t want to stop just there
There are also two short stories set in Tilling during the reign of Mapp: The Male Impersonator and Desirable Residences. I have yet to read the second, but I adored the first.
One (TV) review summarised ‘Mapp and Lucia’ as ‘beautifully tart one-upmanship’ and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s a story about upper middle class women who have nothing much to do, but want to make sure they are busy at all times. So they spy on their neighbours, conjure up conspiracies and gossip as much as one possibly can. There’s always a gathering to organise, or a bridge party, or practically any event enabling the discussion of the latest news. Lucia gets bored of reigning Riseholme (pronounced ‘rizzum’), decides to take Mapp’s place as Queen of Tilling and finally succeeds since she is the cleverer bully of the two. Mapp is furious, rages, and loses everything. But she’s not the one to ever give up! Altogether, it’s a joy to read, since the plotlines following absurd trivialities are familiar to anyone who is or has been a member of any kind of small-scale community. The stories are a rich source of the juiciest sarcasm and do indeed tell the truth about people ‘making their lives’, as Miranda Richardson put it so fittingly.
Mrs Emmeline Lucas (known as Lucia, Italian for ‘the wife of Lucas’): A snob, a fraud and ravishingly brilliant. Tall and handsome, she’s a keen italophil, loves Beethoven (whose Moonlight Sonata – or rather the first movement thereof – she constantly plays on the piano) and effortlessly rules everyone around her. She doesn’t fear feigning interest in anything that’s new – as long as she can make sure to annex it and present it as her own discovery.
Miss Elizabeth Mapp: A ‘handsome hyena’ with impressive teeth and the nosiest, angriest neighbour ever imaginable. She always has her binoculars ready, is full of vigour and bile and will know things before anyone else even dreams of them. Mapp has a certain weakness for her neighbour, the retired Major Benjy, and is ready to do anything to secure him. Being more fallible than Lucia, one might at times side with her, but she is originally designed as Lucia’s nemesis – and doesn’t disappoint.
Georgie Pillson: Lucia’s right-hand man, occasionally bearing a streak of Bolshevism in his well-dressed breast, which he doesn’t usually allow to break through. He enjoys needlework and painting, sports an impressive collection of ‘bibelots’ and wears an auburn toupet (but please don’t tell!). Georgie is kind-hearted and polite, a loyal friend to Lucia, but certainly shouldn’t be underrated. If his queen does indeed fail, he’s the prince consort to make it alright again. And he wears a lovely little cape.
The minor characters (Riseholmites and Tillingites alike) are brilliantly written, with great detail and lots of wit.
In Riseholme, we have Daisy Quantock always following the latest fads – nothing from Christian Science to Ouija is safe from her insatiable appetite. There is talkative, red-faced Mrs Weston in her bath chair, Colonel Boucher who has his eye on her, deaf Mrs Antrobus, constantly carrying an ear-trumpet, and her skipping and gambolling daughters Piggy and Goosie, who are not (as one might assume) teenagers, but in their mid-thirties.
In Tilling, there’s wonderfully forthright Diva Plaistow with her ‘circular feet’, trundling along talking like a telegram, thoroughly modern ‘Quaint’ Irene Coles who wears slacks and paints pictures of naked men and women alike, the vicar (called ‘Padre‘) who comes from Birmingham but talks Scotch, his mouse-like ‘wee wifey’ Evie Bartlett, Susan Wyse wearing her fur coat throughout the year and driving a Royce to cross distances of just a few hundred yards – not to forget her husband Algernon, polite to the extreme and bowing to everyone (and everything). And, last but not least, the gallant, golf-playing, whiskey-drinking Major Benjy, Miss Mapp’s love interest.
Georgie and Quaint Irene are quite obviously homosexual, like Benson himself – a topic that is dealt with in a surprisingly progressive way. Georgie and Irene are respected members of their community (of course, no one openly addresses their sexuality, but it is reflected in their behaviour and pointed out by Benson), they are both likeable and strong, and although people are occasionally turning up their noses at their little quirks, they would never change their ways.
The TV Adaptations
Channel 4 TV Series, 2 Series, 10 Episodes (1985-86)
This classic adaptation is well beloved by fans and spans the last three novels. The wonderful Geraldine McEwan gave a brilliant Lucia, all airs and graces, untouchably haughty with a magnificent range of voice, but indeed adorable. Prunella Scales was Mapp, sweet, smiley and marvellously sickening, showing off a seemingly calm exterior, but certainly boiling inside. And of course, Nigel Hawthorne gave a lovely Georgie, polite, charming and very likable, but nobody’s fool.
BBC TV Series, 1 Series, 3 Episodes (2014)
The latest take on adapting Mapp and Lucia for the screen took its material mainly from the third novel, but borrowed plotlines from ‘Queen Lucia’, inserting them from Riseholme into Tilling, and ‘Miss Mapp’ (which worked very well). Anna Chancellor impressed as a slightly bohemian, incredibly snobbish but equally enchanting Lucia. Mapp was played by Miranda Richardson, whose achingly fixed smile, outrageous use of voice and relentless vigour certainly didn’t fail their purpose. Steve Pemberton’s (he also wrote the script) Georgie was very sweet, warm-hearted and clever, showing off his various interests and abilities.
I learned about M&L via the 2014 TV series. Judging by the first promotional photos on tumblr, I thought it was a detective story in the fashion of Agatha Christie’s Marple, with two lady sleuths and a colourfully dressed sidekick (forgive me, Georgie!). When I actually watched it, I quickly fell in love with the beautiful scenery of Rye. E. F. Benson lived there and was major for some years, modeling Tilling on the seaside village he knew so well. You can directly translate each and every street, even singular houses! I visited Rye in the summer of 2014, shortly after filming took place, but didn’t know anything about it then. Now I’m determined to go back and look at it in a completely new light. I usually don’t think it wise to start with watching an adaptation before reading the books. But they are fairly unknown to a younger readership, or any readership, for that, especially in Germany, so in this particular case, I was glad to get to know them at all.
Firstly, I didn’t watch the whole of the 80s series, which means that I won’t make any judgements about it. Secondly, I don’t believe in comparing two formats which do not only differ in length and concept, but have also been filmed almost 30 years apart. After all, there’s no accounting for taste. The 2014 version is made for a 21st century audience: it’s quickly paced, bright and colourful, presenting the characters in a sympathetic way. Steve Pemberton said in an interview that in the process of writing, his heart ‘went out to Mapp’ since Lucia is always two steps ahead, taking everything from her. This becomes obvious when looking at the depiction of the respective ladies. Mapp does have a few scenes where we are granted a look into her interior and see that in fact, she’s sad, lonely and afraid to lose everything she lives for. Then, there’s Major Benjy comforting her with a kind heart and honest affection.
The Channel 4 series lacks this kind of modern kindness towards the characters. Reading the books, you’ll also look for it in vain. The novels are very sharp and clever, but do not aim at describing the characters’ inmost feelings – we get to know their motivations and designs, but little about what’s in their hearts. It wouldn’t be as funny if we did. And although I admired the way in which Miranda Richardson gave Mapp personality, playing her very much like she’s been written by Benson, with an added touch of heart (that is very credible), it was not one of Benson’s original intentions. A book is, after all, a book, and a TV series something completely different. What was expected from TV in the 80s again differs from what is expected now, and I believe that both adaptations do credit to their purpose. I fell in love with Richardson’s Mapp, and I probably wouldn’t have by reading the books. This enables me to see Benson’s Mapp in a different light, to be critical, to reflect on the sympathy for characters like her that seems so essential in a contemporary discourse. It doesn’t suffice just to label the new series as a crowd-pleaser (since it couldn’t draw an audience great enough to be renewed for a second series). We should rather ask ourselves why it has been created in said way to meet with the expectations of the 21st century viewer.
As a little taster (and an explanation for the strange hints hidden all over my blog), here’s an excerpt from my favourite M&L novel, Miss Mapp (which else could it be?). There’s a bridge party and everybody is in quite a jolly mood, but the non-alcoholic redcurrant fool being served can hardly be the reason – or can it?
Even that one glass of redcurrant fool, though there was no champagne in it, had produced, together with the certainty that her opponent had overbidden his hand, a pleasant exhilaration in Miss Mapp; but yolk of egg, as everybody knew, was a strong stimulant.
Suddenly the name redcurrant fool seemed very amusing to her. ‘Redcurrant fool!’ she said. ‘What a quaint, old-fashioned name! I shall invent some others. I shall tell my cook to make some gooseberry idiot, or strawberry donkey… My play, I think. A ducky little ace of spades.’
‘Haw! Haw! Gooseberry idiot!’ said her partner. ‘Capital! You won’t beat that in a hurry! And a two of spades on the top of it.’
Do you want to read Mapp and Lucia straight away? They are on Project Gutenberg for free, just click on the links:
Deryck Solomon has a very clever blog, the Mapp & Lucia Glossary, explaining practically anything you might stumble upon when reading the novels. He also writes stories about Tilling’s senior police officer, Herbert Morrison (a hero of his own creation).
For more info on the 2014 BBC series, click here. This page sports nice and short descriptions of the principal Tillingites as well as interviews with the actors.