Mapp and Lucia, by E.F. Benson

I read this book for a book club that I’m in – we haven’t had the meeting for it yet, but I’ll probably report back when we do.

I’d never heard of the book before the book club assignment. It was written in 1931, the fourth in a series although, apparently, the first three books don’t deal with both Mapp and Lucia. I may have to investigate that a bit more.

Mapp and Lucia are two middle-aged (I think) women who have for years been the Queens of their respective villages – organizing everything, knowing all the gossip, being the star of whatever event is going on whether they are hosting it or not. Lucia moves to Miss Mapp’s village one summer and, of course, there can’t be two Queens simultaneously, so a wonderful war begins between the two.

It’s comic in the way Jeeves and Wooster is comic (confession: that comparison might not have occurred to me without a brief mention of it in the introduction of the edition I have) – where you recognize the ridiculousness from outside but also the complete seriousness of the players. It also perfectly captured the way that women make war: cattiness and snobbery and drawing in relatively innocent bystanders as pawns in their games. They’re unfailingly polite, even while saying incredibly  cutting things to each other. Invitations become deliberate weapons; something as innocuous as an egg-whisk can lead to renewed antipathy.

The introduction also commented that it felt like an Edwardian setting, even though it’s between the wars (Georgie compares the outbreak of hostilities to 1914), and I think that’s true in a way. It’s timeless in that “golden age” way of late Victorian/Edwardian novels – it could be set at any point between about 1890 and 1939, and only that because they mention automobiles. I would cut it off at WW2, though, because, while women are still that catty and still use words as weapons in the same way, the practicalities of it no longer exist. The class structure that gives a framework for this world does not exist in the same way. We don’t use invitations to tea or to “musical evenings” as battles in our social trench warfare anymore.  We may use other types of invitations, but the actual logistics aren’t the same.

In fact, what it reminded me most of was Agatha Christie. It’s that same idealized village life like St. Mary Mead, the same structure of master and servant and older women ruling things ever-so-gently but always firmly.  It’s the retired army officers who cling to their time in India or Kenya as their defining moment. It’s the caricatured secondary characters, defined by one trait and one trait only (the Wyses with their Rolls-Royce, for example). It’s the world where a servant getting married means the entire breakup of a household, where an invitation to tea means acceptance or rejection, where a thirty-minute delay in talking to your neighbor means missing out on the hottest gossip of the day.

It was an entertaining book; I read it in an afternoon but didn’t feel like I raced through it or anything. It was the type of book that I could have put down at any time, but once I was reading, I felt like I might as well keep reading it. I wasn’t passionately interested in the characters or the story, but neither was I bored by them. If I get around to it, I might even read some of the other books in the series.

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Filed under Classics, General Fiction

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