Major Benjy by Guy Fraser-Sampson
E.F. Benson died in Rye, which he had made his home for the last twenty years, in 1940, having written over one hundred books: a diverse mix of history, biography, fiction, plays, and books on ice skating, of which sport he was a pioneer. The vast majority of these books are today known to us only by their titles, and that is probably no bad thing since their quality is very patchy. There is growing recognition though, that the best of them, of which the Mapp and Lucia series would probably be the best known examples, are very good indeed. So good, indeed, that a major re-appraisal of Benson’s stature as a writer is probably long overdue.
Benson was both well-known and well-connected during his lifetime, numbering Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Henry James and Queen Mary (wife of King George V) amongst his acquaintances. He was widely read by the likes of W.H. Auden, Noel Coward, Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh; I personally believe that Major Benjy, whom we first encounter in Miss Mapp, coloured the character of Apthorpe in the latter’s Sword of Honour trilogy. In other words, his influence as a writer was much more widespread and important than many might today suspect, particularly since he also found time amongst his hectic writing schedule to be a very active reviewer of other people’s books.
His ghost stories are said by those who know about such things to stand comparison with Dickens and M.R. James. Some of his novels such as Paying Guests and Secret Lives have survived in print on a stand-alone basis, while The Blotting Book is an excellent courtroom drama. It is the Mapp and Lucia series, however, by which he is inevitably best-remembered.
There is a great deal of evidence that he originally conceived both Queen Lucia (1920) and Miss Mapp (1922) as one-off books. He revived Lucia for Lucia in London in 1927, but it was not until 1930 that he had the stroke of genius for which we will all ever be grateful and brought these two hilariously dreadful creations together in Mapp and Lucia, following that with two more books, Lucia’s Progress and Trouble for Lucia, the latter being published just a few months before his death.
The central theme of these last three books (the true Mapp and Lucia series) is a battle for social supremacy in the fictional town of Tilling, which was in fact the Rye Old Town which Benson knew in real life. No deception is too devious, no lie too monstrous, no stratagem too outrageous in this ongoing duel. A glorious supporting cast includes the effeminate Georgie, a compulsive embroiderer and doily maker, the rumbustious, bibulous Major Benjy, the unconventional artist Quaint Irene, a vicar from Birmingham who speaks determinedly with a Scottish accent, and Susan Wyse MBE, who wears furs on even the hottest of days and negligently leaves her medal in full view whenever friends come to visit.
Part of the reason for Benson’s reappraisal is being driven by gay fiction courses in the States. There is no doubt that he was gay, living openly with different men at various times and in the early books both Georgie and Quaint Irene are clearly signposted as gay characters, but these references are dropped abruptly in the later books – was he warned off by a friendly word of advice, and, if so, by whom? Such studies are probably unhelpful. Nowhere does Benson’s fiction depend on any gay plot device, and in any event Georgie is camp rather than gay, while Irene is also hinted to take a healthy interest in male anatomy.
The true scale of his achievement, however, lies in the simple fact that his books have endured for the continued pleasure of a consistently loyal fan base in a way in which no others have, apart of course from the Jeeves and Wooster stories, and here there are clear parallels, with their highly stylised characters, and high drama woven from what are actually fairly mundane happenings, albeit of highly charged social importance. None of his contemporaries writing supposedly humorous fiction have survived to anything like the same extent, no matter how wildly popular they were at the time; Dornford Yates would be a perfect example.
So, if you have not been fortunate enough so far to have been introduced to these wonderful books, please go out there and get reading. In my next post, I will be talking about my own modest contribution to the canon.