The Mapp and Lucia Novels by E. F. Benson

'Lucia Rising' by E. F. BensonThese books provided a delightful distraction during my recent lengthy convalescence, so I feel obliged to gush about them here, even though you’re probably already familiar with them. Actually, why hadn’t I read them before? They are exactly my cup of tea – comedies of manners, set in England during the 1920s and 1930s, mercilessly poking fun at the trivial pursuits and snobbery of the idle rich. Few of the characters are likeable, but that just makes their frantic attempts to clamber to the top of the social pile all the more entertaining. The queen of their society is Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas, whom even her loyal friend Georgie describes as

“a hypocrite . . . a poseuse, a sham and a snob, but there was something about her that stirred you into violent though protesting activity, and though she might infuriate you, she prevented your being dull.”

At first, Lucia has to be content with bossing around the inhabitants of the village of Riseholme – forcing them into participating in an Elizabethan pageant, ‘educating’ them about etiquette and poetry and Beethoven – but then her husband inherits a house in Brompton Square and she sets off to try to insert herself into fashionable London Society, with mixed success. However, the books really come to life when Lucia and Georgie move to the village of Tilling, reigned over by the formidable Miss Elizabeth Mapp. Lucia usually wins their battles, but Miss Mapp puts up a strong fight. The secondary characters are equally entertaining. There’s sweet, slightly dim Georgie, clutching his “toupet” to his head as he gallops along in Lucia’s wake; Major Benjy with his tall tales of tiger hunting and his fondness for whisky; the Padre who inexplicably speaks “Scotch”, even though he’s never been further north than Birmingham; and Mrs Wyse, who communes on a higher plane with her dead budgerigar, Blue Birdie. My favourite is Irene, roaring up and down the main street on her motor-bicycle, painting scandalous frescoes on the front of her house, and coming up with mad schemes to assist her beloved Lucia, which always go disastrously wrong.

'Lucia Victrix' by E. F. BensonI was intrigued to see how few of the characters fitted into the traditional married-with-children mould, and the most endearing characters were all coded as gay or lesbian. Irene, for instance, has an Eton crop, wears men’s clothes and lives with her not-very-servant-like maid, Lucy. Meanwhile, Georgie is obsessed with his appearance and his favourite hobbies are embroidery and watercolour painting (and Major Benjy sneeringly refers to him as “Miss Milliner Michael-Angelo”). There’s no indication that Georgie is attracted to men – in fact, he spends all his time in the company of women and is devoted to Lucia – but he has a panic attack whenever it seems that a woman might be attracted to him and he eventually settles into a happy, celibate marriage with Lucia. The novels have also been described as abounding in “camp humour”, so it did not surprise me to learn that E. F. Benson was “likely to have been homosexual“. Bonus fact about E. F. Benson – ‘Mallards’, the fictional residence of Miss Mapp and then Lucia, is based on Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, which was inhabited by not just E. F. Benson, but also Henry James and Rumer Godden (not all at the same time, obviously) and was the subject of Joan Aiken’s book, The Haunting of Lamb House.

There are six novels in the Mapp and Lucia series:

Queen Lucia (1920)
Miss Mapp (1922)
Lucia in London (1927)
Mapp and Lucia (1931)
Lucia’s Progress (1935)
Trouble for Lucia (1939)

Apparently there are also a couple of short stories about the characters, including The Male Impersonator. E. F. Benson was a prolific writer, producing over a hundred books. David Blaize sounds especially interesting, but Benson also wrote some memoirs and a biography of Charlotte Bronte (as well as a novel called The Princess Sophia!). The Mapp and Lucia books were made into a television series in the 1980s, starring Geraldine McEwan as Lucia, Prunella Scales as Mapp and Nigel Hawthorne as Georgie, and the BBC has just announced a new series will be filmed this year, using Lamb House as ‘Mallards’.

10 thoughts on “The Mapp and Lucia Novels by E. F. Benson”

  1. I can’t believe I’ve never come across these novels! They sound very much like my cup of tea, too. Thanks.

    1. They are a lot of fun, a bit like P. G. Wodehouse crossed with Nancy Mitford. I liked the last three novels the best, as Lucia by herself can be a bit annoying – she needs Mapp as an antagonist.

  2. I have never got round to the Mapp/Lucia novels – I must do so as you make them sound so entertaining! EF Benson was a very good writer of ghost stories as your mention of Joan Aitken’s novel reminds me.

    1. I hope you enjoy them. Yes, it sounds as though he was more famous for his ghost stories. I should check them out. Hopefully they are not too spooky for me . . .

  3. These are among my favorite novels–they always make me laugh out loud, and I do love the miniseries with Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales! I do hope you are feeling better.

  4. Dear Michelle,
    First, I am very glad to hear that you are feeling better. And I am also glad to know that you have discovered the pleasures of E.F. Benson . I happened upon his Mapp and Lucia novels in the stacks of my university library more than 30 years ago . Last week I read his collection of character sketches called Freaks of Mayfair and in it found an earlier version of Georgie. The chapter is called Aunt Georgie, and he is described as a boy who should have been a girl. A schoolboy romance is mentioned (they would have kissed, but they didn’t dare), but no further love life ensued . EFB is on the whole kind to Georgie in both incarnations.
    I have been wondering if your Henry was also transgendered. I thought so for the first book , but as she aged I wondered if she just felt that Henrietta was a silly name, that male attire was more comfortable and practical for her preferred activities, and that she had more in common with Jimmy and Toby than with Sophie or Veronica. She does seem to have fit in fairly well with girls her age once she got to know some.
    Best wishes,

    1. Thanks, Megan – that’s fascinating to know about the earlier version of Georgie.

      I didn’t really intend Henry to be read as transgendered, although I know some readers have interpreted her that way, especially in the first Montmaray book. It wasn’t that Henry felt she should have a boy’s body, but that she wanted all the privileges that went along with having a boy’s body, which were considerable in the 1930s. As a boy, she would have been allowed to go away to school and have lots of adventures in life; as a girl, she was meant to wear uncomfortable clothes, stay indoors and restrain all her natural exuberance. And as you say, her best friend when she was young was a boy, and she idolised Toby, the most charming member of the family, so it made sense for her then to regard ‘girly-ness’ as inferior. Once she got to know some girls of her own age in England, she was able to see that she could be a girl and still do fun, interesting things – and as she became more mature, she could see Sophie and Veronica successfully negotiating their own way through the rigid gender rules of society, while still being true to themselves.

      I always wondered about George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, too. Did she dress and act like a boy so the boys would let her do exciting stuff and because the alternative was being boring, wimpy Anne, or did she truly feel she’d been born in the wrong type of body?

  5. The news of the forthcoming TV series jogged my memory of you writing about these novels, and I’ve just ordered a compendium of the three Mapp and Lucia books. I’m greatly looking forward to reading them, and to seeing the TV series too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.