E F Benson: Mapp and Lucia Revisited

In the last few months I have been becoming reacquainted with Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) and Elizabeth Mapp. A Christmas present of the complete 1985/6 London Weekend Television series on DVD prompted my excursion into nostalgia-land. The Bookworm and I have watched the series of ten episodes twice already by now and I am sure that this will not be the last of the Tilling sessions by any means. Benson based Tilling-on-Sea on his home town of Rye, in Sussex and Miss Mapp’s home Mallards on his own Lamb House (now owned by the National Trust). There is a more recent Mapp and Lucia series from 2014, but I haven’t yet got around to watching. It would have to be good indeed to stand up to Geraldine McEwen and Prunella Scales in the starring roles.

Every time you watch McEwen (Lucia) and Scales (Mapp) in action, to say nothing of Nigel Hawthorn (Georgie Pillson), you find something new; perhaps something funny, but also (as in the best comedy) some sadness. Moreover, the costumes and sets are an absolute joy to look at and lust over. Lucia’s outfits in particular are wonderfully elegant, although she does go over the top with her choice of headgear at times. She certainly wouldn’t get lost in a crowd, but presumably that was her intention. It isn’t only the women who get to wear exciting creations, as both Georgie Pillson and Algernon Wyse are rather natty dressers indeed, both having a nice line in waistcoats.

Having revelled in the television version after a gap of so many years, I have been re-reading some of the ladies’ adventures, beginning (not in the correct order) with Miss Mapp (1922, 1990). At the beginning of the book, Benson describes the forty year old Elizabeth Mapp in this way, ‘Her face was of high vivid colour and was corrugated by rage and curiosity; but these vivifying emotions as preserved to her an astonishing activity of mind and body…Anger and the gravest suspicions about everybody had kept her young and on the boil’. Obviously incorrigible curiosity and suspicion can be excellent for both mental and physical health, although I am not sure whether the spied-upon neighbours would have benefited to the same degree.

Alongside this account of life in Tilling, I have been reading short story collection Desirable Residences (1991) so I have been having a three-pronged Benson attack on my summer reading schedule. These stories originally published in magazines such as Windsor Magazine, Good Housekeeping, The Storyteller and Lady’s Realm range from 1896 to 1935. The title story in the collection (1929) is sadly the only Mapp and Lucia tale in the collection. It describes the Tilling-ites’ thrifty habit of letting out their homes for the summer and moving into a cheaper house for the duration. This is how it works:

Those who live in the largest houses with gardens, like Miss Elizabeth Mapp, can let them for as much as fifteen guineas a week, and themselves take houses for that period at eight to ten guineas a week, thus collaring the difference and enjoying a change of habitation, which often gives them rich peeps into the private habits of their neighbours. Those who have smaller houses, like Mrs Plaistow, similarly let them for perhaps eight guineas a week and take something at five: the owners of the latter take cottages, and the cottagers go hop-picking.

A wonderful holiday letting system indeed; it is one that Elizabeth Mapp in particular exploits to the full. Miss Mapp is careful to ensure that garden produce will be included in the rent she pays, so that she can lay in sufficient store of fruit for the winter. This seasonal house exchange is of course, how the music loving Lucia first came to Tilling from Riseholme, when she took Miss Mapp’s house, Mallards for July and August. This prompted her eventual relocation and her new role as the leader of Tilling’s exclusive society (thus displacing the out manoeuvred Miss Mapp). The rest, as they say is history.

I now feel compelled to re-read the later adventures detailing the battles between the social leaders, on which the television series was based. Perhaps I will put the inestimable Lucia at the centre of a future blog post, thus giving me a perfect excuse to read more Benson! Maybe I will also catch up with the more recent BBC Mapp and Lucia series over the next few months.

Watch this space for more Tilling tales…

Additional picture credit (shot of Rye): Steve Knox at English Wikipedia