March and early April in Maine are gloomy times—still cold, often still snowy, and a mix of frozen snow lumps several feet in height and muddy ground from melting snow lumps. I have a need at this time of the year to read something that’s going to cheer me up, remind me that life could be worse, and make me laugh. I have several favorite books or series that I reread when I get this way, and this time I went to my favorite author, E. F. Benson, and my two favorite ladies: Elizabeth Mapp and Emmaline Lucas, aka Lucia.
Mapp and Lucia is the funniest book ever written. Oh sure, the first three books in the series are a riot, and I love them too, but the clash of the social titans that takes place in Mapp and Lucia for the position of Queen Bee of Tilling produces some of the most nuanced, yet obvious, hilarity ever.
If you are not familiar with Lucia, she is the social grand dame of Riseholme when the series begins (Queen Lucia) and conquers London in her next adventure (Lucia in London). The awful Elizabeth Mapp is introduced in her own book, Miss Mapp, next. But bringing together these two paragons in Mapp and Lucia–picture me kissing my fingers to the author and butchering the word bellissimo.
Lucia is emerging from her mourning year following the death of her husband, Peppino, and feels a need for a change to fully emerge from her shell. Riseholme holds no challenge for her, and by chance she sees an advertisement in The Times offering a house for rent in Tilling for two months. On a whim, Lucia inveigles her friend and confident Georgie Pillson to accompany her while she investigates Mallards, which belongs to Miss Mapp. Now Lucia and Mapp have met previously, and clashed, but she agrees to take the house, and Georgie lets Mallards Cottage next door, and Lucia looks forward to conquering Tilling much as Miss Mapp is looking forward to conquering Lucia.
What happens next? Nothing. And Everything. Benson’s pen is dipped in poisonous ink as he ever so politely skewers the pretentious Lucia, the malignant Mapp, and the other residents of Tilling who orbit these two women. These are people who had no need to earn a living at a time when a life of leisure included a little golf or croquette, amateur painting and music, paying calls and receiving them, writing letters, and shredding one’s friends behind their backs while smiling to their faces. As Mapp and Lucia jostle for the top position in Tilling, their jabs at each other over petty matters escalate to ridiculous levels, to a point where each woman repeatedly teeters on the verge of complete social disgrace, only to pull herself out of the fire at the last second—or allow herself to be pulled out.
The genius of these books, and this one in particular, is that despite their age they hold up brilliantly precisely because human behavior is so universal—the petty one-upmanships, the need to feel superior, the engaging in trifling pursuits to stave off boredom and inflating their importance until they must become significant or have no meaning at all. None of these people are nice, really, with the possible exception of Georgie, who has his flaws as well; in fact, they are awful, awful people. Mapp is a shrewish bully, bent on not only having her own way, but having it at the expense of others’ feelings– nasty and malodorous when thwarted, but simpering and even worse when she isn’t. Lucia defines pretentious, with her queenly airs and fractured faux Italian (an affectation that nearly lands her in the soup here), her musical evenings and conceited airs and graces. And yet, what is so dreadful is that everyone goes along with her, slapping her back once in a while when she gets too far over some imaginary line that keeps moving, but always fascinating them nevertheless.
And fascinating the reader. It’s impossible not to be fascinated by these characters, for better or worse. Their audacity is something to behold, no matter how horrible it is, and the lesser beings who orbit them manage to puncture them just often enough to keep them from blowing up past an acceptable level of ridiculousness. If Mapp overplays her hand, for example, someone is bound to get even with her in some way, whether it’s by serving her some of her own rank preserves at tea or mocking her just within her hearing. And yes, it is all petty and acidic and downright ludicrous. That’s what makes it all so, so delightful on a dreary April day.