Tuesday, 21 September 2010
Lucia in Wartime and Lucia Triumphant
During my absence on this blog, I turned to a number of comforting reads - two of which form part of the wonderful Mapp and Lucia saga. Lucia in Wartime and Lucia Triumphant were both penned by Tom Holt in the mid-eighties and continue the story about the inhabitants of Tilling where the original author, E. F. Benson, left off.
For those of you not yet acquainted with the delicious sparrings of Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs Emmeline Lucas, E. F. Benson wrote six exquisite novels - most set in Tilling (based accurately on Rye in East Sussex) revolving around its inhabitants and the constant battle for supremacy in social circles in this picturesque town.
I have read all six original novels and also read Major Benjy by Guy Fraser-Sampson, which is another addition to the saga that was published in 2007. I only had two short stories by Benson to look forward to and re-readings of these cheerful, witty novels. So it was, with a hopeful heart, that I turned to Tom Holt's novels, which several Benson enthusiasts had proclaimed were as good as the originals. My expectations were therefore quite high and my anticipation at re-entering Tilling with fresh stories was palpable.
Lucia in Wartime plunges Tilling into World War II - a brave move as previous novels only ever hint at the legacies of the First World War - and embues all Tillingites with a strong dose of patriotism. Not surprisingly, the social sparrings are concentrated around the war effort. Both Mapp and Lucia try to outdo each other in terms of 'doing their bit' and each tries to gain prestige by assisting the army and country, although by very social means. Major Benjy seizes control of the Home Guard and Georgie finds hidden talents in educating the nation on how to entertain in style by using modest and rationed ingredients. Indeed, Georgie's ascending star threatens to eclipse Lucia's and even Mapp takes advantage of this momentary weakness.
Although this novel tries to mirror Benson's style and writing, I felt that it fell short in achieving this. Perhaps it was the war setting that, although treated in a light-hearted way and only used as a device for Mapp and Lucia's social climbing, weighed down the atmosphere of the book. I certainly did not like Mapp's portrayal and her constant defeat in battle against Lucia. I think that all the characters, Mapp in particular, were not painted with the touch of fondness that Benson sometimes employs. Benson's characters are largely self-involved, catty and underhand but you like them all the same as he pokes fun at their foibles whilst inviting us to laugh at them and admire their grace and wit. In this novel, the main characters simply feel shallow and selfish and Mapp's portrayal was a little depressing for me as she is constantly thwarted and belittled. I have a softness for Mapp and Benson skillfully nurtures this feeling in us when she does battle with Lucia on occassions when Lucia is patently in the wrong.
Lucia Triumphant a much better offering and feel that Holt hit his stride in this novel. The descriptions of Mallards and various Tilling (Rye-based) landmarks and houses are superbly described and successfully transport us to this enchanted town. The tone and dialogue of this novel are so close to Benson's style that I quite often forgot that I was reading a pastiche. The characters are all well-drawn with Lucia and Mapp sharing centre-stage in more or less equal quantities. The fondness for the main characters was present and they were all largely successfully portrayed with wit and charm.
Set in in a familiar war-free Tilling, Lucia is seeking a new outlet for her energies and questioning what the future holds for someone who has accomplished everything. Mapp is on hand to spur her onwards and upwards and the lances are out for another round of social jousting. Lucia dreams up an inspired and ambitious project to be known as the Tilling Tapestry which initially has all of Tilling (except Miss Mapp) at her beck and call. Mapp naturally retaliates and succeeds in producing a new obsession to replace sewing and bridge... the Monopoly board. I found this particular weapon quite inspired and entertaining whilst adding a modern feel to the novel. Imagine it, all of Tilling held inthrall around a Monopoly board with each Tillingite appropriately represented by a Monopoly piece!
I highly recommend these two novels as a pleasant addition to the Mapp and Lucia sextet. Although I personally found the first instalment weaker than the second, it is still an entertaining read and Lucia Triumphant certainly makes up for it. Mr Holt successfully hit the mark with his second offering and it's such a shame that he stopped there. May we please have some more?