It was my mother who first gifted me a copy of E.F. Benson’s seminal comic stocking-filler, Mapp and Lucia. I was a young whippersnapper of 15 at the time and wheezed (I’m asthmatic) my way through it in stitches, proclaiming with every other gasp that the novel comprised of surely the most hysterical 286 pages that I was ever going to read in my life. Well, lots more comedy classics have passed through my system since then, Wodehouse, Amis, Toole, and while Benson’s romp probably finds itself sharing the top spot these days (with a Confederacy of Dunces), it has yet to be definitively superseded. Yes, despite being almost 100 years old, Mapp and Lucia still has the power to curl my belly up and it still demands that I read it with an inhaler close at hand.
The plot of Mapp and Lucia is disarmingly simple. Universally acknowledged Queen of the Village Mrs Emmeline Lucas (but Lucia to all but her sworn enemies) grows weary of her creaking Elizabethan country house in Riseholme and ups stakes, swooping down upon the picaresque seaside village of Tilling with her best friend Georgie in tow. Once settled, she duly sets about conquering the local social scene but is stymied by the waspishly-dispositioned incumbent First Lady, Miss Elizabeth Mapp, and the battle lines are drawn as the rest of the novel unravels into a Wildean fracas of femmes, fetes and face-off-inios (as Lucia would term them in her schoolgirl Italian) which are sure to have even the more stoically immovable of readers guffawing helplessly into their stomachs.
Fans of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Evelyn Waugh and the other great polite society satirists will feel right at home in Benson’s universe. The many pedicured exchanges between Lucia and Mapp have always reminded me of that famously fraught tea party between Gwendolen and Cecily, and, indeed, much of the book’s humour is derived from precisely this tension between Mapp and Lucia’s attempts to keep looking cucumber cool and cordial whilst simultaneously manoeuvring each other’s jugulars into their crosshairs. Mapp is often forced to dive without dignity into all sorts of dykes and ditches to avoid being caught spying on her rival and Lucia too finds herself the ape of societal mores as she seethes impotently over high lunches. There’s also plenty of giggles to be got out of the antics of the bumbling Indian expat Mr Wyse, the obscenely bald (both socially and follicle-ly) Major Benjy and Lucia’s wonderfully camp sidekick Georgie Pillson.
Much as I love it though, Mapp and Lucia isn’t without some weak points. At just under 300 pages, it sometimes feels like a long read for what is essentially just a string of reworkings of the same basic trope of one-upmanship. Most strong comic novels hover around the 200-225 page mark and I wonder occasionally whether Benson’s content might not really possess enough variety to merit the extra half-century of leaves. For particularly restless readers Mapp’s snooping is likely to get old at about halfway and the novel’s brilliantly funny ending in which the two grappling doyennes are swept out to sea on the top of a dinner table would be better had Benson discarded what is really a very workaday and tautologous tableau of the villagers’ reactions which surrounds it. The same tendency to surplus is also, if I’m being really critical, detectable in Benson’s prose. 95% of the novel’s sentences are a joy to read, stuffed full of bombast, long-winded but comically so. The other 5%, however, feel like they’ve been culled from the least penetrable paragraphs of Dickens; weighed down by their own verbosity, to try and read them is like wading through treacle.
But in spite of these minor faults, Mapp and Lucia remains one of my all-time favourite novels. I’ve laughed out loud every time that I’ve read it and its best scenes are among some of the funniest and most snort-inducing in all literature. No doubt it has its fair share of ‘lull’ moments and the odd sentence that feels a bit unwieldy, but when I’m hankering for a comedy of manners, Tilling’s still my destination of choice.