Troubador Publishing Limited, 2008
Review by Siobhan Chapman
E. F. Benson (1867-1940) published scores of novels and biographies but is now remembered chiefly for the six books that make up the entwined ‘Lucia’ and ‘Miss Mapp’ series, comedies of social manners set in thinly disguised versions of Broadway (Lucia’s ‘Riseholme’) and Rye (Miss Mapp’s ‘Tilling’) in the 1920s and 1930s. Such is the popularity of these novels that the E. F. Benson society offers a guided walk of Rye twice weekly during the summer months so that visitors can be sure that they see the houses ‘where Mr & Mrs Wyse lived’ and where ‘Lucia and Georgie stayed on their first visit’.
It is therefore audacious of Guy Fraser-Sampson to offer a new Tilling novel. Neither a sequel nor a prequel, it is specifically intended to fill what Fraser-Sampson describes as a ‘narrative gap’ between Miss Mapp and Mapp and Lucia. It was audacious also to declare a few days ago on the blog of Picnic Books that he will present two further novels in the series – provided that this first one sells in sufficient quantities.
Major Benjy generally succeeds in Fraser-Sampson’s self-appointed task of providing a new Mapp and Lucia book simply because six is not enough. There are flaws, or at least differences from Benson’s originals that may be judged as flaws by his fans. Fraser-Sampson is, perhaps inevitably, not quite such a master of the mot juste as his predecessor. He has a tendency to overuse certain phrases and expressions; ‘she finished lamely’, for instance, occurs with unwelcome frequency.
Perhaps most strikingly, he is much more explicit in his account of the sexual undertones of Tilling society. This is hardly surprising, and perhaps not inappropriate, given the changes during the past seventy years in what can be said in print. But Benson was a master of innuendo and understatement, and his fans will find here rather more than they have been told before, and perhaps more than they will feel they need to be told, on topics such as Major Benjy’s expectations of his interactions with women of a lower social class, and the precise nature of the relationship between Irene and Lucy. Fraser-Sampson’s undoubted strengths, as they were strengths of the original series, are in mastery of character, in skill at describing a comically embarrassing social situation, and in the control of timing. A number of the plot lines in Major Benjy could have come straight out of the original Mapp and Lucia series. A prolonged contretemps involving Miss Mapp, her chief rival Diva Plaistow and the Tilling cake-making competition is a particularly fine example.
This novel will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for fans of E. F. Benson and for anyone likely to be entertained by what feels very much like an extended and elegantly written episode of The Archers set in the inter-war period, this offers a quick, light and diverting read.
Siobhan Chapman’s most recent book is Language and Empiricism, After the Vienna Circle. Her other books include Philosophy for Linguists, Paul Grice: Philosopher and Linguist and Thinking about Language.