[This is a journal in two sections. I read Chapters 1-6 and wrote about them before I read Chapters 7-12.]
23 April 2015
Chapters 1-6 (of 12)
This is the last of the Mapp and Lucia novels, and Benson’s world of genteel one-upmanship and status anxiety is by now completely familiar. The overriding passions, to get one over on the others in the town and to assiduously avoid losing face if caught out in a lie, have both been raised to almost psychotic levels. In fact, this is only really true of the two main characters, with the hapless Diva doing her best to keep up with their absurdities. Other women look on, as often as not ridiculing them – Irene sees through their games and, particularly with Elizabeth Mapp, likes to re-state in unflattering terms exactly what is going on – while the men, as absurd and vain as the women in their own ways, get through each day as best they can. It’s a kind of hell.
At the beginning of this novel, Lucia has just been elected mayor. The previous novel must have culminated in this gratifying victory over the woman who, until Lucia’s arrival, had been the sole arbiter of taste and the undisputed queen of the pecking-order. Lucia is just as absurd, self-serving and dishonest as Elizabeth, but Benson always provides her with a get-out. If ever Elizabeth has anything over her, Lucia knows something worse about Elizabeth. I’m thinking, in an earlier novel, of the picture that Lucia has traced from an illustration in a book of local views and, in this one, the denture that Lucia has that even her husband doesn’t know about. Or, again in an earlier novel, Elizabeth’s discovery that Lucia can’t speak Italian while pretending that she does. This time, Lucia is saved when Georgie, the overgrown fop she has married before this final novel takes place, happens to meet an Italian while on holiday (in England). She is willing to write a fluent letter of apology, in Italian, which Lucia can copy to the contessa who had been looking forward to talking to her.
A lot of the humour arises from the vanity of these people who seem to have no idea of how small a pond Tilling really is. Early in this novel, Lucia is preparing for her new role as though she is about to be a great stateswoman. As a joke, it’s ok, although I’d had enough of it long before Benson. The secretary with nothing to do, the lacquered filing boxes, the mayoral insignia on her new bicycle saddle-bag…. Benson is still inventing new illustrations of her silliness half-way through the novel. But maybe that’s the point. We know exactly where we are in this universe, know that although it’s only a small town, to the inhabitants it’s a world stage. Lucia sees herself as the guardian of the town’s moral welfare, so that she refuses to open Diva’s new tea-shop in her official capacity or, far more problematically, to play bridge for money, however small the stakes. She becomes a pariah for the town’s bridge parties, so does a U-turn by rewriting her own internal moral rules.
In other words, she’s a politician, and it’s at this level that the book is most enjoyable. At different times, characters have compared one another to Bismarck and Mussolini – but the real fun comes with the refusal of any of these people ever to speak the truth. Everybody is a diplomat, so that even when a whole subset of the town knows that one or other of the characters is in a stew of their own making, they are happy to look on admiringly as they talk their way out of it. Elizabeth knows that Lucia hates the idea of her becoming a town councillor, but behaves as though her pretended concern over the hard work it will involve is sincere. Everybody is willing to accept the padre as Scottish, although his accent often slips at times of stress. They all go along with the upper-class Susan’s mania for making spiritualist contact with her dead bird – until her husband asks Lucia to help. She does this through a literally stage-managed spiritualist performance of her own.
Truth is the last thing that any of these people cares about, because all that matters is keeping up appearances. But I wonder whether, alongside his usual ridicule of Tilling’s little hypocrisies, in this novel Benson is deliberately making a parallel with politics. Lucia forces Georgie to stand against Elizabeth in the elections, and both of them make the most outrageous promises, with no mention of the cost, about how the lives of everyone will improve. The British General Election is only two weeks away at the time of writing, and I can’t help but wince at how familiar it all sounds.
The novel is written in episodes, and there are plenty of incidents and set-piece embarrassments that I haven’t mentioned. But it’s time to read on.
Chapters 7-12 – to the end
Near the end, Lucia is in crisis. The minor aristocrat she had pretended to be on intimate terms with arrives in the town and clearly has so little memory of her that Lucia has to prompt her, in public. Not only that, but the hare-brained woman reminds Lucia, in Elizabeth’s hearing, that when she had invited ‘the mayor’ to her stately home she had expected Georgie. (She had been lusting after his goatee beard ever since she first saw it.) It’s all very absurd, of course, but it hasn’t yet reached the pitch of farce that Benson is aiming for. Lucia is able to get it through to ‘Poppy’ that there will always be a welcome for her – and, almost immediately, Poppy takes her up on it. She arrives late at night, having missed her ferry to Le Touquet (where Georgie happens to be staying), and leaves early next morning.
What a coup for Lucia… except Benson has arranged it so that absolutely nobody in the town has seen anything of the visit, and when Lucia tells them all about it she is surprised by how unimpressed they all seem. Their earlier quiet satisfaction at her discomfort when Poppy hadn’t remembered her is replaced by an inexplicable indifference. It’s only as she walks home from the bridge party that Lucia realises, by way of a kind of mental ‘earthquake’, that nobody believes her. ‘In all the numerous crises of her career her brain had always been occupied with getting what she wanted and with calm triumph when she got it.’ But it’s not going to be easy this time, and in a rage she tells her so-called friends exactly what she thinks of them.
It feels like perfect poetic justice, and Benson could have left it there with Lucia in disgrace forever…. But, as always, he drops a solution into the lap of his favourite monster. Previously we had that letter in Italian that Georgie once provided for her. This time it’s telegram. It’s from Poppy, who wants to stay over for two nights on the way back – she’ll do anything to follow that goatee – so… Lucia triumphs again. On the second night she is able to invite all the sceptics: ‘Such a treat for them all,’ she thinks in the final sentence. ‘They will remember this evening. Perfect.’
This is a kind of apotheosis but, of course, the road to it has been strewn with difficulties of Lucia’s own making. That’s the point. She’d first met Poppy, entirely by accident, at a concert given by Olga, a character from an earlier novel. Olga is a professional opera singer so, obviously, Lucia considers her a rival. She almost doesn’t go to the opera, but does some of her mental gymnastics in order to reach an opposite decision. Poppy notices Georgie, which is why she later invites ‘the mayor.’ Following the inevitable farce of Lucia’s visit – I must stop using the word ‘inevitable’ – Lucia presents it back home as a triumph. This is how things always work with her. She presents these lies so confidently that she believes them, and is shocked by the overturning of reality she has to go through whenever the truth comes out, usually in the most embarrassing circumstances.
The Poppy connection is a thread woven through most of the second half of the novel, and there are others. Irene, who loves Lucia but hates Mapp, paints an absurd picture of Mapp which, against the odds, is a sensation at the royal Academy summer show. Lucia is tortured by envy, and her efforts to get her own portrait displayed come to nothing. The only way Benson can offer any consolation at the end is by having Irene ominously threatening to make some final ‘alterations’ to the original work that might, we assume, detract from its impact. There’s another ridiculous thread, concerning the accidental destruction (by Diva’s nasty little dog) of the major’s riding whip. At first, Benson makes the most of the comedy arising from the mutual suspicion that this causes… but then, through a series of farcical discoveries, the major and Elizabeth (married in a previous novel) can produce an identical replacement to confound everybody who had known for certain of its destruction. Lucia finally wins this one as well, but only after Benson has her have another replica made. He’ll do anything, it seems, to make sure that if Mapp ever gets her moment in the sun, it’s never for long.
I’d become bored before the end. I can see why Benson’s novels make such perfect TV episodes, and I checked whether they were originally published serially. They weren’t, but I think I might enjoy them more if I had read them that way, so that the outrageous turns in the plot might not seem so repetitive. Lucia, in the self-important fantasy world in which Sir John Gielgud really might accept an invitation to attend her lecture, really is a great comic creation. So it’s a pity, in a series so dependent on character, that resolutions almost always depend on chance and coincidence. Benson, of course, makes these as much a feature of the comedy as his characters’ absurd pretensions, but sometimes they seem – what? – crude by comparison. And I wish that Mapp could win just once in a while.