I always liked the Britcom “Keeping Up Appearances”. But it is distracting to wonder so often why no one has ever murdered Hyacinth Bucket (“It’s boo-KAY!”). She’s amusing, but mostly because she is surrounded by family and … friends who recognize the fact that she’s unchangeably outrageous, and they’re stuck with her. (Unless they kill her, and since it’s a sitcom they never do.) These other characters, the neighbors and her sisters and their families, and of course her poor bedeviled husband Richard, are all what makes the show fun. If it was pure undiluted Hyacinth it would be miserable.
Which brings me to Mapp and Lucia. I’ve been hearing about this series for years. I love a lot of British novels and tv, and I have been seeing “if you love (such and such name here) you’ll love Lucia!” for ages. I’ve tried before, and never made it very far; I got the series from Netflix and was ready to fling the dvd against the wall after one episode; I never watched any more, and tend to doubt I ever will. But … in a couple of reviews of One for the Books, people mention how Joe Queenan designated a year in which he closed his eyes and pulled each next read off a shelf. That’s how I started this one. I was passing one of my bookcases where I had whammed in a bunch of paperbacks so that only the bottoms faced out, and on a whim pulled one out at random. And sighed when it turned out to be this. It’s the fourth in the series; I didn’t care. I figured this would be when I eliminated these books from my library forever.
And it certainly looked that way for quite a while. In my status updates I call the characters “vile” and “horrid” – and I stand by it, and much more. They’re unrelievedly awful. I can only infer that Hyacinth was heavily based on Emmeline Lucas, AKA Lucia, but – as I started to say above – in this book, instead of poor bedraggled Richard and lovely-if-hounded neighbors Liz and Emmet, and the sister that has “swimming pool, sauna, and room for a pony” and those who very definitely do not, all of whom are lovable characters – and, more importantly, characters who realize how absurd Hyacinth is, but just can’t figure out how to detach themselves. Mapp and Lucia has Queen Hyacinth and her sycophants, all of whom would apparently be Hyacinth if they could, and then, dear God, another Hyacinth and her sycophants. I was appalled.
And then I became morbidly, reluctantly curious.
And then I began to enjoy the clash of titans as Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas (Liblib and Lulu) went after each other.
But I felt wrong to be enjoying it. Aha – it’s just come to me. I felt like I was watching one of those reality shows which, in reality, given a choice between death and being forced to watch, I would seriously consider death. (That’s a terrible sentence, sorry.) It was all very well written, and sharply intelligent (the writing, not the characters), and there was an occasional comeuppance that made me whistle softly – but upon finishing it I felt a little dirty, as if I’d just watched an episode of some show about something named Snooki.
While I am forced to admire the writing, I still wanted to throw the book against a wall many times. I’m a little surprised I didn’t sometime during the chapter in which Lucia tours Mallards for the first time. The constant use of one condescending word was like visual fingernails on a blackboard, as I can only suppose it was meant to be: “little round bustling woman”; “My little plot”; “My little Eden”; “a wee little plot”; “my little secret garden” or “little gardino segreto” (twice); “my little nook”; “a little paved walk” … etc. I may never use the word “little” again. And I bow to Benson’s skill in seeing to it that Lucia and her Georgino were as nauseous as possible with their pseudo-Italian (though when I came to “So I’m bound to meet the Faraglione, and she’ll see in a minute I can’t talk Italian” it made all that almost worthwhile) and, God help me, their baby-talk … I feel a bit ill when someone talks baby talk to a baby. Two supposed adults using it on each other made me long for either a baseball bat for said characters or a shredder for the book.
At about the three-quarter mark, the thought occurred to me that in any other sort of book Mapp and Lucia would probably find themselves together alone in some life-threatening situation in which they had to depend on each other, and come out of it bosom friends. I was astonished when the first part of that actually came to pass (in the most ridiculous manner possible); I was not astonished when the second part of that very decidedly did not.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m a simple soul. I like to be able to like at least someone in a book’s cast of characters. Barring that (and I didn’t like anyone here – no, not even Georgie, though he came closest), I like to at least know that the author liked his characters. It’s pretty clear that E.F. Benson may have enjoyed his characters in so far as he could use them to skewer the idle snobbish rich – but my impression is that the creatures that people his book are simply vessels for his venom, and the book itself is merely the (to mix metaphors with wild abandon) stage on which his commentary is played out.
I guess, unpopular as it is, I like “nice”. So sue me.
I enjoyed it much more than I expected to – which isn’t a huge amount, but since I didn’t want to like it even a little is a lot – and it did wring a few chuckles out of me. But I didn’t find it nearly as funny as I take it I was supposed to; it’s hailed hither and yon as a masterpiece of comedy. I was starting to worry about my sense of humor for a while there. In the end it was a pleasant surprise – but only insofar as I expected to not finish it and in fact to throw it against the nearest wall hard enough for pages to fly. I do not, however, expect to continue with the series.