E.F.Benson was born at Wellington College, where his father (who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury) was headmaster, in 1867 and died at Rye, which he had made his home for the last 22 years of his life, in 1940. He was to immortalise Rye as “Tilling”, the setting for the “Mapp and Lucia” books which have attracted a huge following worldwide, and he served twice as the town’s mayor, as he has Lucia do in the books. His home, Lamb House (previously the home of the novelist Henry James, a family friend) also featured in the books, transformed into Mallards, the home first of Mapp and then of Lucia. In recognition of its literary heritage it is today a National Trust property.
Benson found fame early in life, writing Dodo when he was just 26. The novel, which featured a thinly disguised real life society hostess, became an instant success and was admired, among others, by the future Edward VII. So great a success that Benson was known by many (those who did not call him “Fred”) as “Dodo” Benson for the rest of his life. Though Benson stoutly denied that the central character was based on any real life person, he was finally persuaded at the height of the craze for the book (which was reprinted twelve times in less than a year) to write to Margot Tennant to apologise for any embarrassment he might have caused her. Her reply was worthy of Lucia at her best. “Dear Mr Benson, have you written a novel? How clever of you.”
Benson went on to write over 100 different books and though his Mapp and Lucia books (of which sadly there are only six) have always enjoyed a devoted cult following he was until the mid-80’s known chiefly for his ghost stories, which are said by specialists of that genre to be comparable to those of his contemporary, the great M.R.James, and at least the equal of Charles Dickens. Then Channel Four television in the UK ran a dramatised series of the later Mapp and Lucia books superbly acted by Prunella Scales, Geraldine McEwan, Nigel Hawthorne and Denis Lill, and the books were reissued to take advantage of a whole new generation of fans.
Perhaps more than any other writer, the sheer quantity of Benson’s output told against him, and the standard of his books is appallingly inconsistent; some are, at least by modern standards, almost unreadable. Outside the two areas for which he is best remembered, his most notable books are probably the novels Paying Guests and Secret Lives, but he also wrote plays, literary criticism, history, biographies, and books on the great love of his life, figure skating, of which he was a pioneer, campaigning for the building of ice rinks.
However, his reputation has been building steadily and there is now general recognition that he was indeed a major writer of the early twentieth century. His ghost stories and the Mapp and Lucia books deserve no less. In America this has been in part because he has been championed as a gay writer, but this is both unfair and unnecessary. He was an intensely private man and his books are determinedly asexual. Nor does his literary stature need any such boost; his talent is there for all to see.
There is no doubt that Fred was gay; so was his mother (one of the loves of her life, incidentally, was called Lucy) and so were both his brothers, but that is not the point. To describe him as a gay writer in the same way as, say, E.M. Forster was a gay novelist is plainly inappropriate. Forster wrote The Longest Journey, which is shot through with male longing and of course Maurice which has an overtly gay plot, so much so that he would not allow it to be published in his lifetime. Benson would have been horrified if his private feelings had become public knowledge, though they were well known within his family and he had long term relationships with at least two men, with both of whom he co-habited.
When we turn to the Mapp and Lucia stories it is perhaps this very gayness which makes them what they are. There is a wonderful bitchiness about them which have prompted some to make comparisons with Jane Austen, but in Fred’s case it is a camp bitchiness. As the very first sentence of Miss Mapp, for example, we find the immortal words: “Miss Elizabeth Mapp might have been forty, and she had taken advantage of this opportunity by being just a year or two older.” Yet his greatness is truly demonstrated by the fact that, no matter how many appalling things he has his characters say or do, we still think of them fondly, which emotion seems rarely to be induced by more upright characters in contemporary novels.
There are in fact only two things wrong with the Mapp and Lucia books.
The first is that there are only six of them, a fact regularly bemoaned by those who re-read them once a year and are eager for more. This hunger was partly assuaged by Tom Holt, who wrote two additional books some years ago, though at the time of writing these are both sadly out of print, which seems almost to have become the hallmark of a good book these days. This in turn gives rise to a second problem which is that there are gaps in the narrative which are never filled in, into which holes some characters fall without explanation, never to be seen again (Lucy is a good example).
The second was astutely pointed out in an article written for Penguin by Philip Hensher; all of the minor characters are unashamedly two dimensional, as though recognising the fact that all they are good for is background scenery. Hensher is himself a successful novelist with books such as The Mulberry Empire to his credit, and thus knows what he is talking about. I will happily borrow his words, since they express the point much more eloquently than anything I could write:
“Mapp and Lucia are only part of it, of course, and they are surrounded by an enchanting cast of one-note grotesques … Glorious as they are, most of them only do one thing; Mr Wyse is always bowing, Susan is forever coming up the road in the Rolls in her sable, the padre is always speaking in a sort of Scotch and his wife never says anything, merely squeaks … Even Georgie, the Major and Quaint Irene, who are a little more varied in their habits, run along very clear grooves, doing pretty well exactly the same thing from one end of the novel to the other. They may surprise each other – “No!” is their favourite exclamation - but they don't surprise us, and we know that at any moment, Georgie is doing his needlework, Quaint Irene is painting some naked models while a six-foot maid brings in the refreshments, and the Major is calling “Quai-hai!”.”
He is absolutely correct, of course. You cannot even argue that if Benson had gone on to write more of the books then these deficiencies would have been ironed out; this is the way he chose to write them, and that is that. Interestingly, to those without the trained eye of a professional novelist these weaknesses had not really made themselves apparent until they were brought home by the television series (though I think Hensher may be a little unfair when it comes to Georgie, who is a major character both in the Riseholme and the Tilling books and who surely shares some of Benson’s own characteristics).
I first got to know Benson at the age of ten by the expedient of listening under the bedclothes to “A book at bedtime” on a transistor radio turned down very low. One week they featured Queen Lucia and I was fascinated by it. A visit to our local library revealed that E.F.Benson was in the adult library whereas I only had a ticket for the children’s library next door, but the librarian’s defences soon crumbled under the weight of my mother’s attack, and I duly read all six from cover to cover. They have been a constant in my life since then, sitting in that part of my bookshelves that is reserved for the books I read again and again.
Without wishing to sound either pretentious or sentimental, Major Benjy represents the culmination of a life’s ambition and I can honestly say that the book has been slowly percolating inside my head for the best part of thirty years. I have always wanted to write another Mapp and Lucia book for people to enjoy, and I thought that as long as I was doing it anyway, I might as well also do my best to address the two problems to which I have alluded above.
So, the book is designed to fill the narrative gap between Miss Mapp and Mapp and Lucia; it is set in the early part of the same summer when Lucia and Georgie first arrive in Tilling. It also explains what happened to Lucy, who disappears without trace between the two existing books.
To address the second problem was less simple and I leave it to the reader to decide how effective I have been in my efforts to fill out some of the supporting cast. As with all fiction, I found them taking on lives of their own as I wrote, and the finished article is not at all what I had in mind when I set off on this adventure. Many times words, particularly dialogue, would come into my head as I wrote and I would set them down before continuing doggedly with what I originally had intended. The next day, on sitting down with a cup of tea, I would re-read what I had written the day before three or four times, and then often resignedly delete everything but what had come to me spontaneously. Writing this work of fiction, unlike the safer realms which I usually inhabit as a writer, frequently felt like undertaking a high wire act without a safety net.
Like a circus performer, I decided to trust my instincts. I hope that you will laugh in all the right places, but, whatever your reaction to the book, please accept it as an honest labour of love and think kindly of the ten year old under the bedclothes.
Provided to set stage for Major Benjy by Guy Fraser-Sampson.
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