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Aficionados of English Literature will esteem E.F. Benson for writing a handful of cracking ghost stories. They may be dimly aware that he was also responsible for something called “Mapp and Lucia,” and that this was not altogether in the best of taste. Inspecting the most famous of these novels – the fourth in the series, Mapp and Lucia (1931) – one frowns at the bright cover, before proceeding gingerly into the midst of Tilling and listening with increasing dismay as the citizens of this Sussex seaside town vie to hold the most successful fete or triumph in the latest exhibition of local watercolours.

It is variously remarked of the nearest thing to resemble a man in Tilling, Georgie Pillson, that he had “developed a craze for solitary croquet… to the great neglect of his water-colour painting and his piano-playing,” and that, “tea-parties with a lot of old cats [are] more in his line!” Just as this mincing popinjay would consider a day’s work to be a spirited stint of needlework, it seems that Benson has taken on the traditional lady novelists of his day at the literary equivalent of embroidery and beaten them at their own game. As I progress through Mapp and Lucia, an odd image comes to hang over Tilling like a daylight moon: the furious, flabbergasted features of Ernest Hemingway, who has picked up this book by accident and immediately identified Benson as his cosmic arch-nemesis.

The paradox at the heart of Mapp and Lucia, if this bitchy book indeed has a heart, is that Benson writes in drag, revelling in a world of extravagant and almost suffocating femininity, whilst remaining fundamentally dismissive of all women. The basic message of the book is that Lucia is the most accomplished and sophisticated woman in Tilling, and that she is a brainless fake. She cannot really speak Italian or appreciate Homer or create meaningful art because these things, Benson implies, are only truly done by men. Even the manly lesbian Irene, who dances hornpipes and postures rather ineffectively against tradition, is safely included within the general feminine dimness. She is merely “quaint” rather than a revolutionary. Of course, no real man is ever allowed to set foot in Tilling, leaving a forlorn collection of henpecked and effeminate males, because the splendid arrival of a Hugh Grainger could not fail to show up Lucia as a fraud.

One may take heart from Lucia’s stirring declaration that, “we should aim at being equal citizens of a noble republic, where art and literature and all the manifold interests of the world are our concern.” But when Mapp is obliged to tell Georgie that “I know what a great artist you are yourself,” we are really supposed to scoff at the thought of the “art” that these people may have created. If Lucia establishes herself at the pinnacle of a glittering provincial civilisation, the whole edifice is increasingly exposed as a sort of child’s play, with Lucia and all of her cronies resembling a parcel of posturing and quarrelsome children.

Lucia and Georgie frequently dump established English for their native tongue of “baby-talk,” whilst Mapp is bullied for her lack of proficiency in this elite language, which turns out to be even more exclusive than Lucia’s “Italian.” After the house-warming at Grebe, Mapp is cruelly excluded from Tilling society like a bullied child, and once she has descended upon the town again, the gang threaten to turn on Major Benjy. If only an adult could stride in and restore order with some judicious beatings. Mapp experiences the absolute loneliness of a bullied child, but Benson renders this unpleasantness palatable with his unlikely assurance that she comes to no real harm: “Elizabeth was far from feeling unhappy or deserted, and very very far from feeling beaten. Defiance and hatred warmed her blood most pleasantly, and she spent half an hour sitting by the window, thoroughly enjoying herself.”

After her fete, Lucia and the gang are described as “pleased as children with dressing-up.” Lucia can best express her grief through dressing-up and she comes to play at being a widow in the same way that little girls pretend to be princesses. Like children, the whole gang have no heart for adult passions, and Tilling is essentially a colony of bachelors and spinsters. Georgie’s embarrassment when the Trader’s Arms mistakenly provides a double bedroom for himself and Lucia makes it abundantly clear that there is none of that sort of business between them. There cannot be a cabbage patch in the town, for there are no children (except for those produced by the very poor, who must have a secret cabbage patch of their own hidden away somewhere.) If one looks to the servants to provide some humanity, then they have the blank personalities of dolls. Georgie is attached to Foljambe rather as a child is to his favourite teddy bear.

The pathetic Georgie is heartbroken when his maid resolves to marry, wailing that, “I didn’t think that Foljambe was so selfish. She’s been with me fifteen years, and now she goes and breaks up my home like this.” He finds himself “in a state of the most pitiable widowhood, deprived of the ministering care of Foljambe, who all these years had made him so free from household anxieties…” But he is, of course, only devastated at losing Foljambe’s knack for dusting rather than any female companionship. Lucia helpfully points out that “You can get another parlourmaid.” But Georgie and Foljambe had conceivably perfected the institution of marriage, achieving the ultimate revision of the marriage contract.

Mapp and Lucia is not a “tarsome” book by any means. It gradually casts its spell over you, until you become stranded in Tilling as if you have missed the last train out. The plot is a thing of wily and elaborate craftsmanship, with a series of jokes which are each timed to detonate at the perfect moment. That whimsical au reservoir line finally assumes a magnificent significance when Benson flushes a great apocalyptic torrent of floodwater through Tilling. Although it is spelled out that Lucia is now “involved in literal reservoirs of the most gigantic sort,” it is added that “this was no time for light conceits.” This is not quite the blasting of Sodom, but the warring ladies are carried out to sea on a kitchen table, like two spiders being washed down the plughole, and Mapp and Lucia immediately becomes a more sophisticated book. Although in countless respects a superior writer to Benson, P.G. Wodehouse never equalled the drama of the Tilling flood, nor the exquisitely undramatic manner of the ladies’ return.

Mapp and Lucia broadly shares the same pastoral-suburban setting of Benson’s “spook stories,” and the same cast of sparkling suburbanites, but both are also further allied in exploring the theme of home invasion. Curiously, the account of the genesis of Tilling from Benson’s autobiographical Final Edition (1940) begins with his own sense of exclusion from the Sussex town of Rye, and moves on, with “invasion” very much in mind, to launch Mapp almost as a curse upon this town, unleashing her like a “great spider”:

As an external observer I had seen the ladies of Rye doing their shopping in the High Street every morning… But that was no invasion of private life: I was as ignorant of them all as people as a man from Mars, and I vaguely began to mediate on some design. I outlined an elderly atrocious spinster and established her in Lamb House. She should be the centre of social life, abhorred and dominant, and she should sit like a great spider behind the curtains in the garden-room, spying on her friends, and I knew that her name must be Elizabeth Mapp. Rye should furnish the topography, so that no one who knew Rye could possibly be in doubt where the scene was laid, and I would call it Tilling because Rye has its river the Tillingham…

These presences come to behave like invading spirits. Lucia is at first invited into Mapp’s home Mallards as a tenant, but Mapp finds herself haunted by this troublesome spirit, who moves the furniture around, appears in historical costume, and refuses to leave. Fleeing from Lucia, Elizabeth finds herself “in a scared mood, as if she had heard or seen a ghost…”  Georgie is terrified that his own home and privacy will be invaded by Lucia through the curse of marriage. Mapp herself invades Lucia’s homes, barging into Mallards at all hours of the day to disturb Lucia and even managing to penetrate the inner sanctum of the secret garden by spying on it from the local church tower, before finally materialising again in the kitchen at Grebe. Perhaps everybody has a spiritual side, however, for every summer, in a mass ritual exchange of houses, Tilling overruns each other’s homes.

From Benson’s perspective, all of these spirits were running amuck in his own home, for Mallards is Rye’s Lamb House, which Benson had eventually assumed from his erstwhile mentor Henry James in the same way that Lucia obtains Mallards from Mapp. If one will accept only the fruitiest interpretation of Mapp and Lucia, then the two rival Queens could be ironic reflections of James and Benson themselves, not least because both Benson and Lucia had served as the Mayor of Rye/Tilling and Benson was not unknown to make snide remarks about the elder James. Perhaps Lucia promised Benson a literary afterlife, and as his own bodily masculinity declined from arthritis, his new, liberated feminine spirit moved on to a heaven which bore a fitting resemblance to Rye. Here, he could pit his wits against the town’s former leading literary citizen and beat him roundly.

[Many of the terms used above are explained in this very helpful Glossary of the Mapp and Lucia series. Tychy has previously reviewed Spook Stories. Ed.]