Classics Club Challenge: The Worshipful Lucia, by E.F. Benson

Lamb House, Rye – credit to rightful owner

The Worshipful Lucia, the penultimate novel in the “Mapp and Lucia” series, finds Lucia facing down a fiftieth birthday and wondering what she is doing with her life. Yes, she’s the Queen – disputed, but Queen nonetheless – of Tilling society, and she has her books and her musical nights with her dear friend Georgie (usually, anyway; Georgie has vanished from Tilling’s sight and Lucia is vaguely concerned). But what legacy will she leave? Pondering these weighty matters, Lucia comes across an article about Dame Catherine Winterglass, who started investing at 45 (only five years younger than Lucia!) and died at 55, fabulously wealthy.

She let the paper drop, and fixed her gimlet eyes on the busy of Beethoven, for this conduced to concentration. She did not covet yachts and deer forests, but there were many things she would like to do for Tilling: a new organ was wanted at the church, a new operating theatre was wanted at the hospital and she herself wanted Mallards. She intended to pass the rest of her days here, and it would be wonderful to be a great benefactress to the town, a notable figure, a civic power and not only the Queen (she had no doubt about that) of its small social life. These benefactions and the ambitions for herself, which she had been unable to visualise before, outlined themselves with disctinctness and seemed wreathed together: the one twined round the other.

Inspired by Dame Catherine, Lucia decides to play the stock market – and where Lucia leads, Tilling follows. Lucia quickly makes a bundle (mostly just by following her broker’s advice, although she allows Tilling to form the impression that she is a financial genius) and the ladies and gentlemen of Tilling quickly follow suit – except for Lucia’s archrival, Elizabeth Mapp, of course.

Elizabeth rose. Lucia’s lecture was quite intolerable. Evidently she was constituting herself a central bureau for the dispensing of financial instruction. So characteristic of her: she must boss and direct everybody. There had been her musical parties at which all of Tilling was expected to sit in a dim light and listen to her and Georgie play endless sonatas. There had been her gymnastic class, now happily defunct, for the preservation of suppleness and slimness in middle-age, and when the contract bridge came in she had offered to hold classes in that. True, she had been the first cause of the enrichment of them all by the purchase of Siriami, but no none could go on being grateful for ever, and Elizabeth’s notable independence of character revolted against the monstrous airs she exhibited, and inwardly she determined that she would do exactly the opposite of anything Lucia recommended.

I don’t need to tell you how it goes. Lucia (at her broker’s advice, but she conveniently leaves off that detail) sells off the first stock she purchased – the aforementioned Siriami – at a tidy profit. The rest of Tilling follows along, and makes money themselves. Only Elizabeth and her besotted new husband, Major Benjy Mapp-Flint, hang onto the stock and lose money – with the result that they can no longer afford to live at Mallards, and have to sell it, finally, to Lucia. As you can imagine, this is a singularly painful pill for Elizabeth to swallow.

Eventually, Lucia’s investing bender fizzles out, as most of her crazes do – leaving her significantly richer than she was (and she was already quite rich). She sets about spending her newfound wealth, not only on Mallards for herself, but on the organ and operating theatre she contemplated for Tilling – and other projects too. Elizabeth has decided that Benjy should have a position in Tilling befitting his status as her husband and persuades him to run for Town Council (with an eye to keeping rates low; this is before they sell Mallards to Lucia) but Benjy, unwilling to sacrifice his golf afternoons to an arduous campaign, convinces Elizabeth to run instead. Naturally, this means Lucia has to run too, and both suffer humiliating defeats. But one thing about Lucia: she is never down and out for long, and she quickly finagles her way into first an informal role in the municipal government, then is co-opted onto the Town Council, and ends the book triumphantly as Mayor-elect. Of course.

There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned, no-holds-barred Tilling social brawl to lift the spirits. Lucia and Elizabeth are both snobs – it’s true – and there’s a cathartic delight in watching them occasionally taken down a peg, but there’s just as much delight in watching them (especially the crafty Lucia) rise above and triumph in the end. Each has her moments of humbling, and each has her moments of victory. That’s the real joy of the Mapp and Lucia books; the two combatants are so evenly matched that no one ever stays on top for long, and the fun of watching the battles rage goes on. The books are witty, they are sparkling, and they are surprisingly touching.

Are you a fan of Mapp and Lucia?

3 thoughts on “Classics Club Challenge: The Worshipful Lucia, by E.F. Benson

  1. This was a fun one; I didn’t realise this was published under an alternative title. My copy is called Lucia’s Progress. I often find myself sliding with Lucia over Mapp since Lucia isn’t usually spiteful like Miss Mapp

  2. Pingback: Reading Round-Up: February, 2022 – covered in flour

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