Paying Guests by author, biographer, and memoirist E. F. Benson, first published in 1929, is a standalone novel, which appeared in publication order somewhere between his best-known Mapp and Lucia books. This story is set in the fictional Bolton Spa and around Wentworth, a boarding house which is far more elegant and luxurious than others, with two bathrooms (and a third being added), and offering its guests a golf course, a croquet lawn, tennis courts and a garden, besides hot meals on Sundays. Its proprietress is a widow Mrs Oxney, who runs the place with her sister Mrs Betram.

Their guests include a range of eccentrics—from Mrs Bliss who claims to believe only in the power of the Mind to cure herself and others, to Mr Kemp whose ‘profession’ is invalidism and who treats his poor daughter Florence like little more than his attendant with her having no life of her own; and Mrs Holders and Mr Bullingdon, genuinely there for the cure. Besides these temporary visitors, there are the more permanent residents, including a retired Indian army officer, Col Chase who considers himself (and is likewise treated) as the most important resident, showing off much of the time his physical prowess—on his cycle or on foot, his pedometer the ‘proof’ of his achievements; and Miss Alice Howard, a reasonably well-off spinster, with many talents from improvs on the piano to sketching.

Life at Bolton for the ‘patients’ consists of treatment at the baths, and massages and other times spent with the crossword or bridge; while Col Chase keeps busy with his walks and exercise, and Miss Howard with her art and music. Besides everyday activities and their little excitements, there’s also an entertainment to benefit the children’s hospital where Col Chase shares his little stories and Miss Howard plays one of her improvs; and then Miss Howard decides to hold a little exhibition of her sketches—and all at Wentworth are expected to attend!

Entertaining and humorous, Benson, as always, gives us a variety of amusing characters (most of them given to exaggeration) and situations—whether it is Mrs Bliss who avails not only all the treatments at the spa but every little comfort but professes to do so only for her husband, while going all out to convince all others of the powers of the Mind; not above manipulating situations to make her point; or the Col, who presents his achievements on the cycle or on his walks as many times better than what that ‘faulty’ pedometer records or who supplies ‘instant’ answers to crossword clues others are stuck on having worked them out before; or even Miss Howard who practices her improvs assiduously even though surreptitiously, or might just have exaggerated the nature of her family home.

There are plenty of laughs all through, and also plenty of surprises, including one at the end I didn’t see coming. Both the major ‘events’—the benefit for the hospital and Miss Howard’s exhibition—bring their fair share of these and I enjoyed them very much.

But, I also did feel that many of the characters and situations were rather too similar to Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books—Lady Appledore and Miss Jobson for instance being much like Lady Ambermere and the mousy Mis Lyall from the latter or Col Chase seeming a combination of Major Benjy and Captain Puffin, or Miss Howard’s improvs and Lucia’s Moonlight Sonata. Wodehouse too, does this, but it seems to work a little more successfully in his books than here where the similarities do take away some of one’s enjoyment. (I also found myself a little lost in the chapter focused on the characters’ bridge game, which I really know nothing about).

Nonetheless, this was a fun read, and perhaps best enjoyed if not read too close to the Mapp and Lucia books (which I revisited a couple of years ago).

This was my second pick for Karen and Simon’s #1929club

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34 thoughts on “Book Review: Paying Guests by E. F. Benson #1929Club

    1. It is a fun read, and Benson does manage to create a real set of eccentrics who are very believable at the same time. As Liz said, if one knows to expect Benson’s typical mould of characters, even that slight complaint would go away.

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  1. I love the setting of a boarding house and I think as long as you realise all the characters in Benson’s books will be Benson stock characters, you can get on with them OK. I struggle with descriptions of bridge in novels, too!!

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    1. It made for a great setting, and there are so many fun happenings, one can’t help but enjoy them. I agree about the stock characters, if one knows to expect them, I think one would react better. That said, they are fun even when one knows what’s coming.

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  2. I’ve read all the Mapp and Lucia books years ago, but nothing else by Benson…my memory would be foggy enough for me to enjoy this without being disturbed by similarities. I do appreciate authors who can make me laugh and help me forget weightier concerns for a while.

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    1. He is great fun to read both in terms of plot and his writing. I’ve read the Mapp and Lucia books and The Freaks of Mayfair which was also great fun-sketches of different characters-also prototypes of ones we see in Mapp and Lucia. Hope you enjoy this one when you get to it 🙂

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  3. I do enjoy these little microcosms of humanity books … and I’ve not read the Mapp and Lucia books so this would probably work for me. I can imagine though that after a while microcosms of humanity all from a similar place and period would start to feel a bit the same (unless the writer were Jane Austen of course).

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