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