Classics Club Challenge: Trouble for Lucia, by E.F. Benson

Photo credit: The Independent

At the beginning of this last (sniff) book in the Mapp and Lucia chronicles by E.F. Benson, we find Lucia on top of Tilling – where, she would tell you, she rightfully belongs. Recently wed to longtime bestie Georgie Pillson, ensconced as mistress of Mallards, and poised to ascend to the loftiest heights as the first woman to be Mayor of Tilling, it seems Lucia has finally achieved her dream of undisputed supremacy. But Tilling – unmistakably based on Benson’s own town of Rye – seethes with intrigue, and Lucia is in for a bumpy time.

A preview of the tribulations ahead comes when Lucia receives the shocking news that the Mayor of Tilling must have a Mayoress – a female helpmate who is obviously the First Lady of the town. Tilling isn’t sure what to do with this, because there’s never not been a Mayoress, but Lucia doesn’t have a wife to fill the role. She is instantly besieged by applications, mostly from husbands on behalf of their wives, for the post. The Padre applies on behalf of Evie; Mr. Wyse for Susan; Diva for herself; and Major Benjy lets her know that if she approached “Liz” in the “proper spirit,” his wife might be induced to accept the post. With Georgie’s snarky assistance, Lucia sifts through the applications and drafts tactful letters to the rejected aspirants, until finally Georgie begs her to tip her hand.

“Lucia, it’s too ridiculous of you to pretend to be absorbed in your sketch,” he said impatiently. “What are you going to do?”

Lucia appeared to recall herself from the realms of peace and beauty.

“Elizabeth will be my Mayoress,” she said calmly. “Don’t you see, dear, she would be infinitely more tiresome if she wasn’t? As Mayoress, she will be muzzled, so to speak. Officially, she will have to perform the tasks I allot to her. She will come to heel, and that will be very good for her. Besides, who else is there? Diva with her tea-shop? Poor Susan? Little mouse-like Evie Bartlett?”

“But can you see yourself approaching Elizabeth in a proper spirit?”

Lucia gave a gay trill of laughter.

“Certainly I cannot. I shall wait for her to approach me. She will have to come and implore me. I shall do nothing till then.”

Georgie pondered on this extraordinary decision.

“I think you’re being very rash,” he said. “And you and Elizabeth hate each other like poison–“

“Emphatically no,” said Lucia. “I have had occasion sometimes to take her down a peg or two. I have sometimes felt it necessary to thwart her. But hate? Never. Dismiss that from your mind. And don’t be afraid that I shall approach her in any spirit at all.”

You can see where this goes. There is a standoff, of course, and it ends with Elizabeth approaching Lucia to ask for the appointment – just as Lucia predicted. (While largely evenly matched, Lucia tends to be the more strategic, which accounts for her more frequent victories over Elizabeth.) Elizabeth throws herself into her role as helper and encourager to “Worship,” as she now calls Lucia – at first ostentatiously and later sarcastically. Lucia, meanwhile, throws herself into municipal affairs until she becomes a bore to everyone around her. Even Georgie grows sick of her local government obsession and constant protestations of overwork, and escapes more and more frequently to Riseholme, where he renews his friendship with Olga Bracely, the famous prima donna (leading to a hilarious supposition by Tilling that Georgie and Olga are being improper – nothing could be further from the truth). Lucia and Georgie meet “Poppy,” the Duchess of Sheffield, through Olga, leading to another hilarious misunderstanding in which Poppy assumes that Georgie is the Mayor of Tilling – not Lucia – and invites the Mayor to stay at her castle, only to dismiss Lucia when she realizes her mistake. Lucia, as always, finds a way to salvage the situation to her own benefit.

It was only by strong and sustained effort that Olga restrained herself from howling with laughter. She hadn’t been singing the prayer from Lucrezia this time, but Les feux magiques, by Berlioz; Lucia seemed quite unable – though of course she had been an agitated listener – to recognize the prayer when she heard it. But she really was a wonderful woman. Who but she would have had the genius to take advantage of Poppy’s delusion that Georgie was the Mayor of Tilling? Then what about Lucia’s swift return from the Castle? Without doubt Poppy had sent her away when she saw her female, beardless guest, and the clever creature had made out that it was she who had withdrawn as Poppy was so unwell, with a gallery of photographs to prove she had been there. Then she recalled Lucia’s face when she entered the garden-room a few minutes ago, the face of a perfect lady who, unexpectedly, returns home to find a wanton woman, bent on seduction, alone with her husband. Or was Georgie’s evident relief at her advent funnier still? Impossible to decide, but she must not laugh till she could bury her face in her pillow. Lucia had a few sandwiches to refresh her after her drive, and they went up to bed. The two women kissed each other affectionately. Nobody kissed Georgie.

Lucia’s ingenuity will be tested still more severely, though – and it’s all down to Poppy, the Duchess. Not learning from her previous efforts to annex the aristocracy (in Lucia in London), Lucia lets it get around Tilling that she and the Duchess are great friends. When the Duchess unexpectedly appears on Diva Plaistow’s doorstep and fails to recognize Lucia – in front of Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, disastrously – it looks as if Lucia’s reign has finally come to an end. But while Lucia may be down occasionally, it would be unwise to count her out. This is a woman, after all, who survived being swept out to sea on a dining-room table, with Elizabeth Mapp as fellow castaway. Lucia will go on.

This is my journey with Mapp and Lucia coming to an end, or at least an end to the first part. I have the show still to watch (starring the marvelous Anna Chancellor as Lucia) and there will be re-reads. But you only meet new friends once for the first time. And Lucia and company saw me through dark times in the world – an inept federal government; a global pandemic; most recently, a reckless state government that seems bent on undoing all of the progress we’ve made over the last decade and putting my kids at risk in school. It’s hard to live in 2021; we take our joy where we have it, and Lucia and Mapp’s deliciously malicious social war has been a lifeline for me.

Are you an E.F. Benson fan?

One thought on “Classics Club Challenge: Trouble for Lucia, by E.F. Benson

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

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