“Oh, if you like those books, then you really should read the Mapp and Lucia books,” said the lovely man at the Winchester book stall, eyeing the pile of books in my arms. I thanked him, paid for my stack of books and promptly hunted down the series, which conveniently turned up in my local charity shops all in the same lovely Black Swan editions, the cover images of which are just perfect for the books. All, of course, except the first one which I couldn’t find anywhere. Typical. Eventually I gave in and ordered the first book from Amazon Marketplace and it arrived just before Christmas but I saved it as I thought that, with its comic tone and lightheartedness, it would be a great book to keep me sane through the first few days of going back to work in the new year.
Queen Lucia introduces the village of Riseholme, its inhabitants and, most importantly, Lucia Lucas who presides over Riseholme’s social scene as benevolent dictator. In this first installment in the series, Lucia’s unspoken sovreignty comes under threat from an Indian guru, a Russian medium and a celebrated opera singer and we see how she deals with these attempts, whether intentional or not, to go against the status quo.
The appeal of Queen Lucia is explained rather well by Olga Bracely:
‘Oh, it’s all so delicious!’ she said. ‘I never knew before how terribly interesting little thingswere. It’s all wildly exciting, and there are fifty things going on just as exciting. Is it all of you who take such a tremendous interest in them that makes them so absorbing, or is it that they are absorbing in themselves and ordinary dull people, not Riseholmites, don’t see how exciting they are? (pp. 258-259)
It is a novel about little things that happen and are only made interesting by the way in which the entertaining cast of characters treat them.
Lucia reminded me of no one so much as Mrs Elton from Jane Austen’s Emma: she is shallow, snobbish, pretentious and completely convinced of her own importance. In other words, she should be a rather unpleasant character but is absolutely delicious to read about as she lords it over her friends. The only facet of her character which I didn’t particularly enjoy was her fondness for baby talk with the men in her life; self-importance and snobbery, while irritating traits in real life, can be made great fun to read about, but adults trying to sound like infants is something that I will always find annoying.
Riseholme’s other inhabitants are equally as obsessed with social climbing, though in different ways. I enjoyed Daisy’s futile attempts to usurp Lucia’s prominence by launching the latest trend before Lucia can pick up on it and annex Daisy’s latest discovery, something which always ends in disaster. Georgie’s delight at having a secret from Lucia which gives him some sort of power over her is amusing and infectious as the reader spends more time with him than with Lucia. Although Benson’s writing is sharp and biting, it was without any particular malice. I felt that, although he mocks these silly social situations he also loves them and thrives on them, and that he would be behaving exactly the same as the other villagers if he were to live in Riseholme and would love every minute of it. He certainly has great fun writing about them.
To continue the Jane Austen comparison, there were times when this book felt like it needed a Mr Knightley. It has the intrigue of people being manoeuvred into relationships, the fast-fading fashions for particular activities and the carefully considered, smiling social warfare between the characters, but I would have liked to see someone with sense and morality who wasn’t taken in by all of this nonsense to provide some much needed contrast. While I know it’s a light, humorous novel and I enjoyed it for what it is, it felt a bit relentlessly shallow and breezy at times and I would have preferred an occasional change of tone. Hermy and Ursy, Georgie’s irrepressibly robust sisters, would have done this perfectly but they remained fairly marginal characters in this first book. I hope to see more of them in future volumes as I would love to see someone practical tell Riseholme to stop being so ridiculous. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable ridiculousness (ridiculousity? I think I prefer ridiculousity) and I look forward to continuing the series.
Queen Lucia by E. F. Benson. Published by Black Swan, 1986, pp. 266. Originally published in 1920.