Given the recent, brilliant television adaptation of “Mapp and Lucia,” which I confess is what prompted me to read their most famous outing, I suppose there is little I need to say in order to set the scene here. Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs Emmeline Lucas (or “Lucia” to her friends) are two warring, would-be queens, lording it over the inhabitants of the pretty coastal town of Tilling, and doing everything in their power to embarrass one another as brutally as possible. Miss Mapp – whom Lucia’s faithful deputy Georgie characterises with the single word, “Teeth” – is a braying egomaniac, who has been used to running Tilling society with a tried and tested system of endless Bridge parties, gossip, tea and the constant surveillance of her neighbours from her garden-room. When Miss Mapp decides to let her home for the summer months, however, Lucia comes to Tilling and immediately disrupts the status quo. Like her opponent, Lucia is endlessly vain, selfish, snobbish and self-assured, and in her turn seeks to exercise control over her new neighbours through interminable musical recitals, calisthenics classes, a smattering of spurious Italian and sheer force of will. Unlike Miss Mapp, however, Lucia is a veritable force of nature, exuding vitality and a zest for life which, in spite of all her faults, makes you root for her.
E.F Benson describes this epic clash of wills with the language of real, heated warfare – “The main lines of this defensive campaign being thus laid down, Lucia, with her Napoleonic eye for detail, plunged into minor matters” – and the inhabitants of Tilling watch the two alpha women trade blows with unadulterated delight. It gives the onlookers a new lease of life, and both “Liblib” and “Lulu” thrive in this martial environment. E.F Benson displays brilliantly how their skirmishes absorb the entire town – as in Jane Austen, the hierarchies and alliances within this small society are all-consuming; the stories of Tilling are the only thing that matters to its inhabitants, and the outside world is utterly forgotten. It very much reminds me of the way in which the sinking of the Titanic was allegedly reported in the local paper of my grand-parents Norfolk village – “Yarmouth man dies at sea.”
What I enjoyed most about E.F Benson’s writing was the unadulterated cruelty. There is no redemption here; the two heroines do not exist on a moral arch which carries them from self-absorption to a kind of Emma Woodhousean transformation into something genuine. They are consistently shallow and mean, and apart from Lucia’s winning joie de vivre, utterly deprived of anything approaching goodness. The friendships in Tilling, too, are fickle and subordinated always to self-interest, and when it looks as though both Elizabeth and Lucia might have shuffled off this moral coil in a freak accident at the end of the book, not even Georgie approaches anything which looks like real grief – “A very long pause of silence followed, broken only by the crashing of toast in the mouths of those who had not yet finished their caviare.” This callousness, however, is never judged – Georgie frequently catches Lucia out as she places her own interests above those of their relationship, however he just shrugs his shoulders, contemplates punishing her, and ultimately lets it slide. Likewise Diva always knows when Elizabeth has done something foul, but it never stops her from accepting an invitation to tea or treating Elizabeth with cordiality. This cast are all universally accepting of one another’s grotesque behaviour, and morality has little place in Benson’s world – it is really very refreshing!
L.P Hartley said it best, with his line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Perhaps more than any other time in history, we have totally lost touch with the prelapsarian, pre-world war England. Jane Austen’s Highbury may differ very little from E.F Benson’s 1930’s Tilling, but it is difficult now to imagine a time when your village was your world, and the people in it, the dramatis personae of your life’s drama. Twitter; Facebook; email – we are more connected than in any other time in history, but the price we pay is that most people seem more absorbed in their cyber dramas than what’s going on in the post-office down the road. It makes a novel like “Mapp and Lucia” even more bitter-sweet – the people of Tilling seem to have a lot more fun darting between Elizabeth and Lucia’s endless gatherings than we could possibly have poking around on Facebook for an hour, looking into the lives of people we barely know. I’m very tempted to move to Rye to join a Bridge club.