Charming Comedy

You never know how a new author is going to enter your life. E F Benson (Edward Frederick) came to me like this:

Now, Rye is not a place from which the view is particularly spectacular; rather, Rye is a place people go to look at, as did we, on recommendation by a friend who had been there some months earlier. It is the quintessential English small town, and just what the English themselves seem to love the most. We only stayed for a few hours, strolled around (with our bags in tow, as we were in transit), had lunch, a long fika (as it began to rain rather heavily), took a few photos, and just generally roamed about. For some reason, probably the weather, all my photos from Rye are terrible and dreary, which is why most photos in this post are the husband´s. Also, a telephoto lens is crap when you want to photograph quaint alleys.

Referencing another, more famous author.
I had never heard of E F Benson, and nor had my friend (the one who had visited Rye before me and who has introduced me to some great British literature), so I investigated. Turned out, he wrote six novels about these characters and four of the books were set in a ficionalized version of Rye called Tilling. The first book, "Queen Lucia" is available for free at the gutenberg-project, or you can get it at amazon, also for free. 

This is social comedy, or a comedy of manners, perhaps. Emmeline Lucas, or Lucia, as she wants to be called, dominates the social life of small town Riseholme by having set herself up as a paragon of culture and good taste. She hosts parties with musical entertainment and poetry readings (her husband Philip, whom she calls Peppino, is a retired lawyer and self-published poet), she has a penchant for tableaux, and has even invented her own dresscodes for parties. Her tastes go beyond the social and she has written a memorable essay on "Humour in Furniture", which she has read to the Riseholme Literary Society, advocating the use of brass milkcans as receptacles for sticks and umbrellas, displays of realistic stone fruit, and man-made insects crawling around the home.

Lucia´s right hand man is Georgie Pillson, a half-old bachelor, more girl than man, who adores Lucia in a most chaste manner. There are other wonderful characters as well, like Daisy Quantock, who likes to play first fiddle herself, and occasionally puts up a bit of a fight for the throne. The village green is referred to as the parliament, and gossip is what fuels the inhabitants of Riseholme. Everyone wants to know everything about everyone and everyone wants to be interesting and talked about by the others. Information is the most valuable currency.
Georgie felt very much like a dog with a bone in his mouth, who only wants to get away from all the other dogs and discuss it quietly. It is safe to say that never in twenty-four hours had so many exciting things happened to him. He had ordered a toupet, he had been looked on with favour by a Guru, all Riseholme knew that he had had quite a long conversation with Lady Ambermere and nobody in Riseholme, except himself, knew that Olga Bracely was going to spend two nights here. 
Riseholme is, at the beginning of the story, a paradise to those who live there. As faulty as its inhabitants, perhaps, but paradise all the same. Then, the snake moves in. Or actually, a woman takes up residence in Riseholme, a woman who really is everything that Lucia pretends to be, and awkward and amusing things start to happen. And that´s really all I can say without spoiling your pleasure.

The author Benson reminds me most of, that I have read, is Nancy Mitford, who published her first novel about ten years after "Queen Lucia". Both write amusingly about their social circle, which is upper class in Mitford´s case and solidly middle class in Benson´s. However, and I say this with the reservation that I have yet to read Mitford´s most praised, later novels, Benson has a lot more depth to his characters and the plots have more layers.

I don´t know if he planned a series when he wrote this book, or if the success of it demanded the sequels, but for sure, it feels very complete. Towards the end I realized that the story has a spiritual quality as well. You might say that it is a story of the enlightenment of Georgie Pillson, who are, I think, at the centre of the story. This is a delicious little paragraph towards the end, about a portrait Georgie is making of his new neighbour:
Then Georgie had the other picture to finish, which he hoped to get ready in time to be a New Year's present, since Olga had insisted on Lucia's being done first. He had certainly secured an admirable likeness of her, and there was in it just all that his stippled, fussy representation of Lucia lacked. "Bleak December" and "Yellow Daffodils" and the rest of the series lacked it, too: for once he had done something in the doing of which he had forgotten himself. It was by no means a work of genius, for Georgie was not possessed of one grain of that, and the talent it displayed was by no means of a high order, but it had something of the naturalness of a flower that grew from the earth which nourished it.
I have to say, the language is wonderful all through the book; it is pure joy to read Benson´s sentences. His characterisations are so funny (he is a master working with clich├ęs), but he never portrays anyone without reason to sympathise with them and even like them. His most flawed characters are also his most amusing and dear, which is perhaps why Lucia lasted through six novels. You cringe when she makes an arse of herself, but can´t help liking her anyway, because no one can get away from the fact that there is a Lucia in all of us. There is also a television series from the 80´s, starring Nigel Hawthorne, Prunella Scales, and Geraldine McEwan as Lucia. I have bought the dvd from amazon and can´t wait to see it!

I started this book with curiosity, not expecting to get hooked or read another. Now, I am an ardent fan of Mr Benson, and will absolutely return to him at some time. "Queen Lucia" is an entertainment read, certainly, but it is so well written, has so much heart and depth to it, that it is also very satisfying. Benson seems to have a devoted following still, and this charming blog is dedicated to the Riseholme/Tilling universe. I also like this cute and nerdy little tribute on youtube, by Kevin Riley.

Highly recommendable!