When I got married in 1993 (ah I was so young then) and prepared to live happily ever after with Sarada, little did I know that I was marrying into a very affectionate clan that was sports crazy. Never having held a ball or for that matter a bat or racquet in my life, I found myself struggling to come to terms with mid on, mid off and not to forget square leg. And then as I progressed I realised that it was not all uphill. Several of these sports-nutters were also musical minded and what’s more were very well read too. But if there was someone whose literary tastes matched mine, it was cousin Jayanthi (Vyjayanthi Raman), now teaching French in far away California. And it was she, while I was on a visit to the US, who introduced me to the joys of reading EF Benson.
EF who you may well ask. And I too reacted the same way. For a country that is so well up on PG Wodehouse, we have been sadly negligent of Benson. The son of the Rev EW Benson, who wound up as Archbishop of Canterbury, EF was one of several siblings, all hugely talented and at the same time victims of bipolar disorder. Several were also discreetly gay, and that included EF. None of them married. All of them wrote and met with varying degrees of success. The three brothers wrote ghost stories as well. But EF is best remembered for his Mapp and Lucia series, featuring Emmeline Lucas (Lucia to friends), a hugely pseudo character who has pretensions to artistic and cultural glory and her arch rival Elizabeth Mapp. The stories are spread over two villages – Riselhome which is Elizabethan and Tilling which is Queen Anne. The latter is clearly based on EF’s Rye, of which he was Mayor, just as Lucia would become in the novels. The house that Miss Mapp lives in, Mallards, complete with its garden room and its bay window from which she peers down High Street is based on Lamb House that EF lived in. This was sadly bombed during the second World War.
The supporting cast includes Daisy Quantock and her husband Robert, Lucia’s husband Philip who dies just before Lucia and Mapp, her ardent admirer – the fey and camp Georgie Pillson who eventually marries her, Major Benjamin Flint, Godiva Plaistow, Susan and Algernon Wyse (and his sister the countess Amelia Faraglione), Irene Coles – an artist with lesbian leanings, the Scotch-speaking vicar the Rev Kenneth Bartlett and his mouse-like wife Evie. There is a whole host of maids and chauffeurs and cooks in addition to the delightful operatic diva Olga Bracely and the mad Duchess Poppy Sheffield who has a weakness for men with beards.
The six novels are Queen Lucia, Lucia in London, Miss Mapp, Mapp & Lucia, Lucia’s Progress and Trouble for Lucia.Each is a gem and with much difficulty I managed to source all six, over several visits to London. I have since reread them so many times that all of my copies are now dreadfully tattered, such being my addiction to them. The humour is entirely different from Wodehouse but if you are an Indian with cultural pretensions (as I am), then you can associate with everything that happens.
The series was made into a very successful television production starring Nigel Hawthorne, Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales. You can see some of the episodes on youtube. A recent attempt at yet another TV series was not so well received and had to be stopped. But read the novels is my advice.
This article is part of a series that I write on my favourite books. You can read the earlier parts here