Novel Readings

“Too Tarsome”: E. F. Benson, Mapp and Lucia

I almost didn’t finish reading Mapp and Lucia. I’m glad now that I did, not because I take any uncompromising stand on whether one should or should not finish every book one starts, but because if I’d put it aside at the point I’d reached as of yesterday, I would never have known that the heroines get swept out to sea on a kitchen table. That was a surprise! And when they come back, thus thoroughly upsetting everyone who has (with oh, such difficulty!) come to terms with their loss, not to mention their homes and possessions and fortunes — OK, I admit it, it’s wonderfully done, with the perfect balance of malice and brio, which also perfectly describes Mapp and Lucia themselves. For people who like that sort of thing, Mapp and Lucia is definitely the kind of thing they’ll like.

I don’t really like it, though, which is why I was tempted to give it up half way through. It’s not just that there’s nobody in the novel who is worth anything. That’s true of Vanity Fair too, after all, and Vanity Fair is a novel I greatly admire. But then Vanity Fair is an impassioned indictment of the greed, selfishness, and hypocrisy of the world its characters have created. Mapp and Lucia is too much fun to be read as social criticism or satire; it takes too much pleasure — or allows us to take too much pleasure — in the machinations and lies, the pretense and double-dealing. Who will play Elizabeth I in the fête? Will Lucia’s complete ignorance of Italian be exposed? Will Mapp get away with the recipe for Lobster à la Riseholme? Will Mapp’s strategems for keeping Georgie and Lucia’s pictures out of the exhibit be successful? These are the pressing questions of the novel, but the answers to them are for our entertainment only. They don’t mean anything. Nothing in the story matters, except as a move in the absurd, competitive, hilarious game of snakes and ladders Mapp and Lucia are playing with each other’s lives.

It’s not that there isn’t amusement to be had. Benson is very clever, and both heroines are memorable. When they might be dead, it’s not just life in the village but the novel itself that deflates. As Georgie reflects,

There was nothing to look forward to, and he realized how completely Lucia and her manoeuvres and her indomitable vitality and her deceptions and her greatnesses had supplied the salt to life. He had never been in the least in love with her, but somehow she had been as absorbing as any wayward and entrancing mistress. ‘It will be too dull for anything,’ thought he, ‘and there won’t be a single day in which I shan’t miss her most dreadfully.’

But when she does come back, it’s just more of the same. It’s smart and witty, but a bit nasty: it’s what Pride and Prejudice would be stripped of everyone but the Bingleys, or Persuasion with only Sir Walter Elliot and Mrs. Clay — or Vanity Fair without the narrator. I seem to prefer my social comedy served up with a hint of conscience, or even of pathos. At first Mapp and Lucia was good for a laugh, or at least a chortle, but after a time I found it (as Georgee would say) “too tarsome.”