Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson (1931)

Feeling a little under the weather a couple of weeks ago, I decided I needed something to cheer me up. E. F. Benson’s much-loved novel Mapp and Lucia seemed an excellent choice. I didn’t expect to have such a peculiar reading experience though. Mapp and Lucia has been on my piles for ages and ever since I got it, I saw people mention it as a novel they loved. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was planning to read it, the reactions were enthusiastic. Logically, I was sure, I would love it but for the first hundred pages I did not only not love it, I almost hated it. And then, I still don’t know why, I started to like it so much, that I still miss reading it. I believe that’s what some people call a book hangover.

At the beginning of the novel, we find Lucia and her best-friend Georgie, still in Riseholm, where Lucia owns the most beautiful house and occupies the centre of the social life. That is, she did before her husband died. While he’s been dead for over a year, Lucia felt it was her duty to still live like a recluse. But enough is enough and she’s planning to re-enter Riseholm’s social life and be its queen again. Georgie who missed her shenanigans, is happy that she’s finally back. We’re led to believe that her mourning was only in part real, a lot of it was just for show. And so are most things with Lucia. She does and says so much just for show and to grab the attention of the people around her. One of the funniest things she does for show, is pretending that she speaks Italian. She addresses Georgie, and other people, constantly with little Italian sentences and phrases, exclaims her joy or distaste in Italian morsels. The people of Riseholm and Tilling admire and envy her for that.

After reclaiming the Riseholm stage, Lucia is soon bored and wishes to conquer new territory. She decides to rent Mallard, the most beautiful house in Tilling. The house belongs to Miss Mapp, the centre of Tilling’s social life. Just like Lucia, she’s an attention-grabber, self-centred to the max, and never shies away from thinking about her own advantage. It’s the custom amongst the Tilling upper middle-class to sublet their homes in summer. Mallard being the most expensive one, it’s rented to foreigners; the next in line, Diva’s house, is taken by Miss Mapp. Diva rents someone else’s, and so on. Luckily for Lucia, Georgie decides to rent Mallard cottage and join her for the summer. He will prove, once more, to be her most ardent ally.

At first, things are amicable enough, but soon Lucia isn’t satisfied anymore and wants to become the centre of Tilling. Things are a bit different here though. While there was no real competition for her in Riseholm, there’s formidable Miss Mapp in Tilling to be reckoned with. She’s the most important person in Tilling and there’s nothing that she doesn’t preside over, nothing she doesn’t decide, much to the annoyance of some of the other inhabitants of Tilling. Lucia might always have wanted to become Tilling’s most influential person, but having competition spurs her on even more. In Miss Mapp, she’s found her match. While things don’t often turn out the way Miss Mapp has planned, she still wins more than one small skirmish in this war.

As I said, initially, I hated the book because I found the characters obnoxious and nasty. But once the reader gets to see behind Lucia’s mask and Miss Mapp defeats her more than once, it’s more and more enjoyable.

And there’s life at Tilling. A carefree life that’s so different from most of our lives nowadays. Not only because it’s set before WWII, but because it’s set among the British upper middleclass. Nobody works in this book. All the main characters own beautiful houses. All they think about is, where they will dine next, who gives the best tea party. Gossip and petty quarrels aside, it’s a peaceful world. The conflicts are entirely the character’s own making. Nothing dramatic ever comes from outside. At least not until the end. After a while, I found spending time in this world very comforting. And funny. It’s a terrific social comedy. Lucia’s pretence to know Italian is hilarious and so is the way they constantly try to outsmart each other.

When I got the book, I wasn’t aware that it was part of a series, and not even the first in the series, but the fourth. Luckily, it works very well as a stand-alone. As far as I know, this is the first of these books that feature both Lucia and Miss Mapp.

Has anyone read other books in this series? Are they just as good?

22 thoughts on “Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson (1931)

  1. I read all six books back in the day and did indeed love them. However, I think the received wisdom is that the series really takes off when Mapp and Lucia meet. They really are the most wonderfully awful pairing and so funny. I loved the 1980s adaptation starring Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales, but avoided the modern version like the plague. Such fun! 😀

    • Yes they are wonderfully awful. 🙂 I couldn’t imagine it being this good with only one of them in it. Thanks for the info about the adaptation. I was tempted to watch one.

  2. The book actually sounds fun. Nasty characters can make for good reading but I think that it takes a skilled author to make it work. I would however start with the first book in the series.

    Great review as always.

    • Thank you, Brian. It was fun but it took some getting into. After reading Karen’s comment, I think this is one of those series, where you can easily skip other books. I don’t think there’s much in character development.

  3. I’ve heard of this book many times but wasnt sure it was one for me. The relatively recent tv adaptation did nothing to convince me – it was so awful I switched off after 30 mins.

    • Oh dear. Seems like one has to stay away from that adaptation. I’m not sure you’d enjoy it either. In many ways the characters represent everything I don’t like. Lazy, snobbish, entitled. But it’s fun nonetheless. They are so mean and silly.

  4. How interesting to hear about your responses to this book and the change in your feelings towards the characters over time! I have to admit to loving it right from the very start when I revisited it recently (my first reading was back in the ’80s to tie in with the rather wonderful Geraldine McEwan/Prunella Scales TV adaptation), but I can understand how the characters might divide opinions. Oddly enough, I’ve only ever read this one, which as you quite rightly say is the fourth in the series. Do you think you’ll go on to read the subsequent books, Lucia’s Progress and Trouble for Lucia?

    • I just took it so literally and those characters are awful. I needed time to appreciate the comedic aspect. I need to see if I can catch that adaptation.
      I got this in a book bundle – humorous novels – by the Book People a few years ago. That’s why I had no idea of it being a series. I’m not so sure if I want to read more. If my piles weren’t sky high, maybe. Pym is funny and believable. In the end, that works better for me but I loved the descriptions of Tilling and Mallard. The next books are set somewhere else, I believe.

  5. Such a wonderful book. I think I still have to read book I shockingly, I came very late to Mapp and Lucia a few years ago. This is probably the most memorable. I think I read number 5 last year, thanks for the reminder to read no 6.

    • I’m glad to hear you liked it too. I’ll look for your review. At the moment, I have no clue what to expect, so I’m not sure I’ll be reading more. I hope the last one is good too. I’m looking forward to your review.

  6. I have the omnibus of the series on my shelf. I bought it as I’ve heard so much about this series but sadly have not read it yet. I enjoyed your review. Love the bit about pretending to speak Italian. I knew someone that did this with Spanish. Had everyone convinced she took a lot of Spanish lessons yet couldn’t count to 10. People are funny, both real and not.

    • I’d love to know how you like it. Especially should you start with book one. I worked with someone like that too. Pretended she spoke amazing Italian but as soon as an Italian entered the premises she turned mute. People are funny indeed.

    • This one is certainly well worth reading. I hope you’ll enjoy it, I guess, whether or not one should start with the first depends. Knowing this might be the best, I’m not that tempted to start at the beginning especially since this works so well on its own.

  7. Great review Caroline. I’ve been meaning to read these for so long as so many people love them, and I did buy a little set of 3 recently but I realise from your review and the comments that they are the first three in the series and the fourth is where it all takes off! I will moderate my sky-high expectations a bit but I’m sure they’ll still be really enjoyable.

    • Thank you, Mme Bibi. This is certainly the most famous one but the comments tell me they are quite addictive and so I’m sure enjoyable. I’m very curious to find out how you like them.

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