‘Queen Lucia’ by E. F. Benson

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 - Save & Share - 6 Comments

“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.

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6 Responses to “‘Queen Lucia’ by E. F. Benson”

Comment from Annie
Time January 19, 2011 at 8:53 am

Thank you. It is far too long since I read these and I really ought to go back to them as soon as possible. As you say they are good reads for times when you’re feeling in need of a lift. Perhaps I should get them in in anticipation of going down with the bug that seems to be doing the round of all my friends at the moment.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 19, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Fingers crossed for your continuing health, although I can imagine these would be excellent sick bed reading. At least you will be well-supplied in the event of your getting sick.

Comment from Laura
Time May 9, 2011 at 7:55 pm

I adore these books and allow myself another read of the whole series about once a year. (It’s also one of the few times a movie or television adaptation of a favorite book has not made me want to throw the tv across the room in disgust.)

When I ran across the Tom Holt novels, Lucia Triumphant and Lucia in Wartime, I hesitated for a long time. In my estimation, a sequel written by a different author is never good news. However, I bit the bullet and couldn’t have been more pleased. They were quite superb. Holt imitates Benson’s style beautifully and these books fit seamlessly into the Lucia canon. The ruthlessness of the Tillingites over the new game of Monopoly is hysterical.

Comment from Laura
Time May 9, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Added: As much as I adore the Lucia novels, I haven’t yet been able to read more than a few pages of Miss Mapp. As fun as it is to read about her social villainies, the characters needs a bit of Lucia’s manners and benevolence, as dictatorial as they are.

(Okay, think I’m done now!)

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time May 10, 2011 at 10:43 am

I had no idea that the series had been continued, so thanks for letting me know and for the positive endorsement of the new books. It’s so hit and miss when an author tries to mimic another’s style, so it’s good to know that the Tom Holt Lucia books are worth reading. They’ll help to stave off the inevitable pangs of withdrawal when I come to the end of Benson’s books.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time May 10, 2011 at 10:45 am

I’ve read ‘Miss Mapp’ now but not reviewed it yet, and I have to agree that it’s a bit different. It feels meaner than the books with Lucia in. I’m looking forward to seeing Mapp and Lucia butt heads in the next book though. I have a feeling that sparks will fly.

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