Queen Lucia, the first of Edward Frederic Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books, turns a 100 this year, and so I thought I should revisit. The stories centre around Emmeline Lucas (‘Lucia’) and Miss Elizabeth Mapp who battle for social supremacy in the village of Tilling (based on Rye where Benson himself lived).
The first book, Queen Lucia, which introduces us to Lucia (the second introduces us to Miss Mapp) has a different setting—the village of Riseholme (from where Lucia moves to Tilling in book 4), where Lucia is undisputed Queen of all things social—she organises garden parties, entertainments like tableaux, plays the piano and pronounces what music is the thing to be played (the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata is a favourite), and generally directs the cultural life of the village. (Her husband Peppino/Philip, a former lawyer, has also published two volumes of poetry). Others, like her right-hand man Georgie Pillson, and neighbour Daisy Quantock (who takes up a new fad every other day) usually simply follow, for attempts at Bolshevism (seeds of which creep up in them every so often) are often crushed rather ruthlessly (but with flair) by the Queen. Others like Lady Ambermere must be kept in good humour of course, but Lucia manages to ‘direct’ her as well to fall in with her plans much of the time. But things begin to change for Lucia’s ‘perfect’ life in Riseholme when Olga Braceley, the prima donna first visits and then moves into Riseholme. Olga is a good-natured and good-hearted character who almost instantly wins Georgie Pillson’s heart (and loyalty), but her interactions with Lucia don’t quite turn out right, for while Olga doesn’t intend it, she accidentally exposes Lucia’s pretensions (her reputation as a judge of good music, or her and her husband Pepino’s ability to converse in Italian, for instance) one after another, almost taking her ‘kingdom’ from her. But her kind heart means she is more than ready to restore it as well.
This was a fun read as always, and I found myself (like Olga) feeling a touch sorry for Lucia seeing all that she had created for herself slipping from right under her feet, even though Lucia can be rather spiteful (but even so, I find her more ‘likeable’ than Miss Mapp—by comparison, only of course). Daisy Quantock with her ever changing fads (which invariably end not just in disappointment but as cons) is a fun character—always excited when she picks up a new one, and then struggling to cover her tracks (or rather, the fiasco) when the inevitable happens; she is one of the few in Riseholme who attempt to rebel, yet there is little or no spite in her. Olga Braceley is perhaps my favourite in the book—she is fun, likeable, thoroughly straight-forward, and good-natured—trying to help and be kind to all, even Lucia who she knows has been nothing but rude and spiteful. She is also rather perceptive, able to see instantly what others don’t and able to bring others happiness rather than only accolades for herself. The other characters—Lady Ambemere with her mousy companion/assistant Miss Lyall and pug, Mrs Weston and Col. Boucher, ‘Piggie’ and ‘Goosie’ Antrobus—are also fun, though some we get to see more of than others perhaps. (Benson’s The Freaks of Mayfair, by the way, had prototypes of some of these characters.)
When I compare the two villages in these initial books, I find life at Riseholme far more interesting than at Tilling where there might be battles for social one-upmanship, card parties, and even visits by the Prince, but which are not anywhere as much fun as Daisy Quantock and her yoga ‘Guru’ holding classes or Sybil séances or her many other fads or even the tableaux that Lucia plans and holds—life seems richer here in some ways and more fun. Like Olga Bracely says at one point, ‘Oh, it’s all so delicious!’…‘I never knew before how terribly interesting little things were. It’s all wildly exciting, and there are fifty things going on just as exciting.’
Each connected episode is a great deal of fun, and one certainly laughs or has a smile on ones face as one watches things unfold, and even as Lucia gets more and more into trouble (mean of us perhaps), and each fad or pretension is burst. I thoroughly enjoyed my revisit, and am moving on to Mapp and Lucia (book 4) now (I just read Miss Mapp before this), to see how the meeting between the two formidable ladies plays out.
Have you read this one, or others by Benson? Which ones and How did you like them? Looking forward to your thoughts!