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?

Funny Novels

I like to read a funny novel once in a while but when I’m in the mood, I never seem to know what I should pick. So when I discovered the ten books you can see on the picture, offered as a collection for only 9£ by the book people (only available in the UK), I had to have them as they were called a “collection of classic funny British and American novels”. One of the books, Lucky Jim, has been recommended to me by a friend as the funniest novel she has ever read.

Here are the ten novels:

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson

Nothing….Except my Genius by Oscar Wilde

Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E. W. Hornung

Modern Baptists by James Wilcox

The funniest books I’ve read so far were

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary

Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,

Erich Kästner’s Drei Männer im Schnee – Three Men in the Snow (oop)

Philippe Jaenada’s Le chameau sauvage (not translated)

I also thought that Janet Evanovitch’s One For the Money was very funny. Other than that, I’m a bit at a loss.

The problem with recommendations for funny novels stems obviously from the fact that the sense of humour of one person is so very different from the sense of humour of another one. I even suspect that relationships have ended due to incompatibilities in that department (following right after incompatible tastes in music). Especially satire and black humour aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. While I consider the movie No Man’s Land to be extremely funny, other people think it’s in bad taste to laugh about three guys trapped between enemy trenches with a bomb strapped to one of them.

What is considered to be funny or comic and why is a topic even great minds deemed worthy of analysis. If you are interested to explore this some more I can recommend two classic essays which are quite interesting, Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic – Le rire: Essai sur la signification du comique  and Freud’s The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious – Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten.

While I could make a long list of funny movies and series (and might do so in a future post), I have, as you may have realized, a hard time to come up with a similar book list.

Do you know any of the novels in my collection? Do you consider them to be really funny? Which are the funniest novels you have read?