18 February 2019

Village Culture Wars

Queen Lucia
E. F. Benson
Harper & Row, 1977
originally published in 1920
318 pages

"Queen Lucia" is the first of six comic novels that E. F. Benson set in village England between the two World Wars. Kirkus Reviews called them "delicious satires of the pretensions and foibles of provincial middle-class life in Britain". The series is sometimes referred to as Mapp and Lucia, after the two main female characters, although Mapp is not in this book and Lucia is not in the third book, "Miss Mapp".


Lucia's real name is Mrs. Emmeline Lucas. However one of her pretensions is that she can speak Italian, so her friends call her "Lucia, pronounced, of course, in the Italian mode--La Lucia, the wife of Lucas." Conversations with Lucia are always peppered with Italian words and phrases.

Lucia is the cultural queen of her village, Riseholme, and she always takes it upon herself to promote literature, music, and art among her subjects, holding frequent garden parties and musical salons. Tact is not her long suit and she constantly badgers and bullies everyone into doing what she wants.

In this book Olga, a famous singer, buys a home in Riseholme to escape the pressures of London life. She is very sweet and genuinely cultured, quite in contrast to Lucia. Thus a rivalry builds up, in Lucia's mind at least, and farcical cultural wars break out.

Although Benson was a serious English novelist, biographer, memoirist, archaeologist, and short story writer, he is now probably best remembered for the Mapp and Lucia comedies. The writing style befits the story he is telling: bombast, exaggeration, mock horror. One of my favorite lines in it is:
The thought even of good food always calmed Robert's savage breast; it blew upon him as the wind on an Aeolian harp hung in the trees, evoking faint sweet sounds.
At least two "Mapp and Lucia" TV series have been created in the UK, and are sometimes shown on our PBS stations. I saw both Geraldine McEwan and Anna Chancellor as Lucia and enjoyed both series, which is why I bought this book. To be honest, I am not sure I'd like it as much without that background. Yes, Lucia was pushy in the TV version, but the actresses somehow smoothed out her rough spots a bit. Maybe the nasty side of her didn't overwhelm the nicer side in a live performance. She's just not very nice at all in the book, so I am a bit disappointed in it. But the goings on in Riseholme are High Farce and quite funny. I do plan on reading the other five eventually.

This is my entry for the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge, in the Classic Comedy Book category.

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