Sunday, 13 February 2011

Mrs Ames


Mrs Ames is a delightful novel dealing with the dynamics of married life and the usual social one-upmanships that have been wittily portrayed in Benson's Mapp and Lucia novels.  However, this novel delves into the more serious topic of marital infidelity and Benson's touch is therefore more sympathetic and introspective.  Published in 1912, it predates the first of the highly popular Mapp and Lucia novels by eight years but one can already see Benson's trademark observances of day-to-day petty preoccupations and rivalries between neighbours.

This novel is set in a hilly Kentish village named Riseborough and we are introduced to a group of characters (indeed mostly all married couples) who are largely retired and who fill their days with the three G's: golf, gardening and gossip - and relentless stabs at social supremacy.  The undisputed doyenne of the village social scene is Mrs Amy Ames, a fifty-something lady married to a Major ten years her junior.  With a son at Cambridge, and obscure connections to royalty, Mrs Ames sets an example which all follow... until the recently arrived doctor's wife, the dubiously shy Mrs Evans, takes an interest in Major Lyndhurst Percy Ames and unintentionally begins to usurp the throne.


The book opens sedately on a scene of domestic life between perhaps the only couple in the book who are truly comfortable and happy with each other.  It proceeds at a gentle pace as we are acquainted with the main characters and tension slowly begins to build as events unfold.  I found Benson's treatment of middle-age quite touching as he seems to understand women's preoccupation with greying hair, wrinkles and so on and Mrs Ames' endeavours to turn back the clock were humorously though sympathetically portrayed.  Indeed, all of the main woman characters are quite solidly portrayed whereas the men appear a little more like caricatures and regarded with greater mirth.  It is a tribute to his writing that I started out liking all the characters (whilst having luke-warm feelings about Mrs Ames) but by the middle of the novel I could not stand Mrs Evans and was wholly on Mrs Ames' side!

There are quite a few surprises in this book - for its time - such as a comic portrayal of a suffragette uprising and one or two schemes that go awry, including a farcical fancy dress party.  The novel is delivered in beautiful prose - such as I have come to expect from Benson - and is peppered with witty phrases and portraits.  This is not of the same sharp quality of the Mapp and Lucia novels but it is a worthy read.  If you are new to E. F. Benson, and are not sure if this is your cup of tea, I would highly recommend starting with Mapp and Lucia or even his excellent stand-alone novel Secret Lives, before acquanting yourself with the indomitable Mrs Ames.


8 comments:

bookssnob said...

Great review! I enjoyed this but found the undertones of discontent really rather sad. However, the wittiness of his writing has made me desperate to read the - I gather - far more lighthearted Mapp and Lucia novels. One day!

Rochester Reader said...

Thank you! I like to think that the ending is somewhat happy... or at least on its way to being settled. M&L do not really have any of the sad undercurrents - they are deliciously ruthless and oh so funny. Please try to get to it as soon as you can - they're a treasure. I would suggest starting with Mapp and Lucia to get you hooked and then start at the beginning of the sextet - it works well enough in that order - except for one spoiler - but it shouldn't spoil the other books for you at all. I also highly recommend the TV series - sublime :-)

Annie said...

I have heard so many people speak well of Benson, primarily, of course, of 'Mapp and Lucia' but somehow I've not got round to any of the books. I've just checked on the shelves and I don't even have one stashed away on the tbr pile. Time for a visit to Amazon, I think. Thanks for the extra push.

motheretc said...

This book does sound intriguing, but I think I had better give Benson a try with the Mapp and Lucia books first!

StuckInABook said...

Looking forward to this one, especially after this fab review - I have the Bloomsbury reprint waiting on my shelves, alongside lots of other Benson. So far I've only read (and adored!) Mapp & Lucia series, and Secret Lives.
Simon

Cristina (Rochester Reader) said...

Annie: I am hosting an M&L giveaway tomorrow. Please do add your name to it. Good luck!

motheretc: Do add your name to the M&L giveaway tomorrow. Good luck!

Simon: I loved Secret Lives (it's my favourite non-M&L so far. The Bloomsbury Group edition is quite attractive... I hope you'll enjoy it. By the way, do add your name to the M&L giveaway tomorrow if you fancy it :-)

Aarti said...

I'm reading this book now and really enjoying it! It's exactly as I expected it to be- somewhat episodic, but really satirical in its description of the characters. I completely missed the reference that Amy Ames (which, when you think about it, is a horrible name to be stuck with) is related to royalty, though. I got that she was related to a baronet, but perhaps haven't gotten to the royalty part yet!

Cristina (Rochester Reader) said...

I'm so glad you're enjoying it! I absolutely agree about Amy's name :-)