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review 2017-07-29 14:27
Miss Mapp
Miss Mapp - E.F. Benson

Ever since Summer-time had been inaugurated a few years before, it had been one of the chronic dissensions of Tilling. Miss Mapp, Diva and the Padre flatly refused to recognize it, except when they were going by train or tram, when principle must necessarily go to the wall, or they would never have succeeded in getting anywhere, while Miss Mapp, with the halo of martyrdom round her head, had once arrived at a Summer-time party an hour late, in order to bear witness to the truth, and, in consequence, had got only dregs of tea and the last faint strawberry.

Ah, Miss Mapp and her merry band of villagers who are too refined to ask indelicate questions and therefore thrive on the misunderstanding that is fuelled by assumptions, gossip, and the hard of hearing. 


There is again much to love about the characters and their adventures such as the interaction between eccentrics who are trying to outperform each other only to realise that they also need each other as a respective audience. 


In this second book of the Mapp & Lucia series, a little too much whisky and a little too much eagerness for drama takes the story to its heights when a duel is arranged.


As much as I enjoy parts of the stories, they lack the pace that would make them something I could look forward to. The pace is injected in the dramatisations, but in the books I find the lack of plot development is keeping my enthusiasm at bay. Had the books the same spark as the tv dramatisations, I would liken the stories to Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest, which is what I had to think of a few times when reading about the exploits of Captain Flint and Major Puffin, and their supposed rivalry for Miss Mapp.

“If your status in Tilling depended on a reputation for bloodthirsty bravery,” he said, “the sooner it was changed the better. We’re in the same boat: I don’t say I like the boat, but there we are. Have a drink, and you’ll feel better. Never mind your status.”

“I’ve a good mind never to have a drink again,” said the Major, pouring himself out one of his stiff little glasses, “if a drink leads to this sort of thing.”

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text 2017-07-28 22:46
Miss Mapp - E.F. Benson

He sat down by his table and began to think things out.

He told himself that he was not drunk at all, but that he had taken an unusual quantity of whisky, which seemed to produce much the same effect as intoxication. Allowing for that, he was conscious that he was extremely angry about something, and had a firm idea that the Major was very angry too.

“But woz’it all been about?” he vainly asked himself.

“Woz’it all been about?”


E.F. Benson - Miss Mapp (Lucia Book 2)

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text 2017-07-28 16:04
BL-Opoly Free Friday Read #5
Miss Mapp - E.F. Benson

I picked Angels in America as my last Friday read and I am having to abandon it for the purposes of BL-Opoly. I like what I am reading but it is taking me forever, ... and it requires a certain mood and focus to read it. 


And mood and focus have gone out of the window this week because I have been crazy busy at work with meetings and after-hour requirements. I had very little time for reading and, of course, I also missed the live screening of Part II of Angels in America performed at the NT. :(


 Anyway, I will pick a new Free Friday Read - something more light-hearted: Miss Mapp by E.F. Benson.



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review 2017-07-21 19:10
Queen Lucia
Queen Lucia - E.F. Benson,Wanda McCaddon

The ruler of Riseholme, happier than he of Russia, had no need to fear the finger of Bolshevism writing on the wall, for there was not in the whole of that vat which seethed so pleasantly with culture, one bubble of revolutionary ferment. Here there was neither poverty nor discontent nor muttered menace of any upheaval: Mrs Lucas, busy and serene, worked harder than any of her subjects, and exercised an autocratic control over a nominal democracy.

Late to the party, but I only recently discovered the 2014 Mapp & Lucia tv series with Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor - it was hilarious. I know there is an earlier version with Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales but that one never grabbed my interest.


Anyway, I am on a mission to read some of the original books that the series is based on and Queen Lucia is the first one of the set.


Now, if you look at the 2.5* rating you might think that I did not like the book, but that is not exactly true. I did like the book: the slow pace and very subtle humor, the caricature of a group of characters who are doomed to be outpaced by the world and yet cling to their own idea of it. It is a book full of delicate deliciousness.


But,...I could not help but compare it to P.G. Wodehouse - and Queen Lucia just lacks all bite when compared with any of the characters in the Jeeves and Wooster novels.

Maybe the comparison is not warranted or even unfair - as a book shouldn't be compared with a contemporary for merit - but I was distracted by my wish to be reading Wodehouse instead.


The other thing is that Queen Lucia needs an equal counterpart like Miss Mapp, but Miss Mapp does not appear until later in the series.


So, while it was a light and enjoyable read to get to know the characters of Lucia and Georgie - and the world they inhabit - there was just something missing in this first book in the series.


I look forward to the next book in this series.



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review 2017-01-31 21:35
Books of 1916: Part Four
The Freaks of Mayfair - George Plank,E.F. Benson
David Blaize - E.F. Benson
Miss Mapp and Lucia - Lucia's Progress - E.F. Benson
Pilgrimage 2: The Tunnel and Interim - Dorothy M. Richardson
The Life of E. F. Benson - Brian Masters The Life of E. F. Benson - Brian Masters
Final Edition (Lives & Letters) - E.F. B... Final Edition (Lives & Letters) - E.F. Benson

Books of 1916: E.F. Benson Edition


Freaks of Mayfair by E.F. Benson


E.F. Benson is one of the most reliable writers. He always serves up something tasty. Freaks of Mayfair is not a novel but a series of comic sketches of the kinds of “freaks” who lived in Mayfair, an area of London that I know mainly as one of the properties on the Monopoly board; I believe it is dark blue.


This book made me kind of cross with E.F. Benson but then I love E.F. Benson so I felt bad about that. In the end I wound up feeling sympathetic to him as well as sorry for him.


I thought the highlight of this book would be his sketch of Aunt Georgie, who will reappear later as Georgie Pillson in the wonderful Lucia books. In the Lucia books, Georgie lives in the fictional town of Tilling, doing his needlepoint and playing cards with Lucia and Miss Mapp and all the other colorful town characters. Eventually Georgie and the title character Lucia make their platonic relationship official by embarking on a marriage in name only.


Unfortunately, the “Aunt Georgie” sketch was the lowlight. While I don’t think E.F. Benson would have self-identified as gay (anyway, how could he, having died in 1940?), he is famous for his romantic friendships with other men, etc, so I felt let down to see his portrayal of Georgie was on the vicious side. The last thing anyone needs to read is a humorous skewering of someone who was born “an infant of the male sex according to physical equipment, but it became perfectly obvious even when he was quite a little boy that he was quite a little girl.” In a way it gives a little frisson of “I am seen, I exist” to see an Edwardian character who “formed a violent attachment to another young lady, on whom Nature had bestowed the frame of a male, and they gave each other pieces of their hair... and they probably would have kissed each other if they had dared.” But I hate that Georgie has to be a figure of fun.


“Public-school life checked the outward manifestation of girlhood, but Georgie’s essential nature continued to develop in secret. Publicly he became more or less a male boy, but this was not because he was really growing into a male boy, but because through ridicule, contempt, and example he found it more convenient to behave like one.” Depressing. But I think I’m starting to understand the enduring nature of the confusion between gender identity and sexual orientation (for example, when people get transgender people and gay people mixed up.) The original reason for this confusion is purposeful: sexual orientation could not be named at this time but it was okay to say Georgie was a woman. The “problem” is not really who you like, it’s who you are, hence all this tedious focus there still is on “same sex relationships” which throws everything back on yourself when you thought it was about how you felt about other people. Alternately, perhaps E.F. Benson really did conceive of Aunt Georgie as a (transgender) woman: because of the customs of the age, it’s impossible to tell.


“[Although] he did not care for girls in any proper manly way, he liked, when he was sleepy in the morning to hear the rustle of skirts.” “[H]is guests were chiefly young men with rather waggly walks and little jerky movements of their hands and old ladies with whom he was always a great success, for he understood them so well.” “Occasionally, for no reason, he roused violent antagonism in the breasts of rude brainless men, and after he had left the smoking-room in the evening, one would sometimes say to another, ‘Good God! What is it?’”


On the plus side, Georgie leads a happy life, drawing pictures and being arty and visiting with his friends. We should all be so lucky. At the end of the sketch, Benson points out that Georgie has never hurt anyone and that it would cruel to send him to hell, but it would be “very odd” for him to be an angel in heaven. The whole book has a light satirical tone, but it was meaner in the Georgie sketch than all the others. But clearly, as with all hating people, E.F. Benson hates himself (again, back to self, who you are is the problem.) Before reading this book I always thought that Georgie was Benson. Fred is trying to draw some kind of line in the sand between himself and Georgie. Oh, Fred is not like Georgie because Fred is quite butch! That’s where I started feeling so sad for Fred Benson and why did he have such terrible misfortune to be born in Victorian England to pious parents instead of (for example) in New York in the 1970s to atheists? And wouldn’t E.F. Benson be fun to have around if he were alive today?


Moving on to the more entertaining parts of the book, it was much more amusing to see Benson hating on his brother, who is skewered in “The Spiritual Pastor.” I mean, I don’t even know that much about the Benson family but even I could see it has to be his brother. All the other freaks of Mayfair have something unusual and undesirable about them, except for this vicar, whose undesirable quality is that he’s too good looking, too good at sports, too well-liked, too upbeat, too humble. What really makes writer Benson gnash his teeth is how successful the vicar is with his writing career, publishing commonplace religious essays. The examples of the kinds of things the vicar writes were fun, because they were exactly the same as some uplifting self-help type stuff you might read today (eg don’t be so upset about being late for the train, pay attention to the fluffy clouds in the sky!) But honestly not even bad enough to make fun of. Pure sibling rivalry!


There were other examples of things the freaks did that Benson thought were totally ridiculous which today are commonly accepted, such as practicing yoga and having a vegetarian diet. But yoga practitioners are not members of a persecuted minority, so it didn’t make me get all up on my high horse to read the “Quack quack” sketch. The chapter where I actually felt personally most skewered, and found most hilarious, was “The Eternally Uncompromised” about a person with too much imagination, just like me. Winifred Ames’ particular problem was always imagining that men were looking at her with eyes of silent longing. (She read too much sentimental trashy literature from the circulating library, same as Miriam in Backwater.) But Winny-Pinny’s greatest dream, of being talked about as being in a compromising situation with a man who’s not her husband, recedes from her as fast as she chases it. “Indeed, it is receding faster than she pursues now, for her hair is getting to be a dimmer gold, and the skin at the outer corner of those poor eyes, ever looking out for unreal lovers, is beginning to faintly suggest the aspect of a muddy lane, when a flock of sheep have walked over it, leaving it trodden and dinted.”


Other quite funny sketches are about snobs, social climbers, and older people who cling to their lost youth (“grizzly kittens.”) Just once Benson alludes to the war, saying “the myriad graves in France and Flanders bear a testimony [to the manliness of the British, maybe the war is why he has this topic on the brain] that is the more eloquent for it being unspoken.”


I noticed how often in my book reviews I start out by saying, “I expected x, y, and z to happen, but...” or “I thought it would be the same as n, but...” (In this case, expecting the sketch of Aunt Georgie to be the best part.) Or occasionally I say, “Just like I expected, such-and-such happened!” If this habit is tedious for me, it must be tedious for you. Is there any way I could stop having expectations about novels, and stop making up a projected plot the instant I lay eyes on it? I would really like it if that could happen.


David Blaize by E.F. Benson


Naturally, E.F. Benson published three books in 1916. Most of his books took him three weeks to write. He described himself as “uncontrollably prolific.” His biographer suggests that the whole Benson family’s prodigious output is due to mania. I say, a preferred kind of mania if you could pick and choose.


I didn’t read Mike but I read David Blaize many years ago. This is today one of Benson’s most popular novels. It is a boarding school story. I enjoy those, and it has everything you want in one, including terrifying but secretly kind headmasters, beatings, cricket, and lots of pranks. The heart of the story is the friendship that the title character develops with an older boy named Maddox. The most memorable part is when Maddox is ogling David in the shower, David doesn’t like it and leaves, and Maddox comes to apologize to him. Then later another character is expelled for bringing disgrace onto himself for writing love letters to another boy. Maddox says that it could have been himself and that David has made him “uncorrupt” himself, and David thanks Maddox for shielding him from filth. Because they have chosen the path of purity, they then basically get to have a love scene, lying next to each other on the grass, wriggling shyly closer, feeling intense happiness, and then playing sports. Forever after they are the greatest of friends. David and Maddox get to hold hands at the end because David almost dies (of injuries from heroically stopping a runaway horse on the high street.) A brush with death is the only situation where males are permitted to hold hands, and one of them has to be delirious or unconscious. I think you could read every book on the planet and never find a more striking example of an author desperately trying to repudiate sexual feelings and at the same time elevate the purity of love between two boys. When I read David Blaize as a young person it just made me roll my eyes, but as a withered-up middle-aged person I find it very touching and a bit sad.


According to Benson’s biographer Brian Masters, David Blaize was the first positive treatment of a romantic friendship at a boy’s school and while it was a critical success it was “dangerously new.” E.F. Benson’s brother Arthur wanted him to leave all that stuff out but Fred didn’t listen. So Fred received lots of fan mail about the book, including one from the Front saying “the lads in the trenches are sharing it and passing it around.” Masters says Fred would “not have been pleased to learn that the novel is still on the list of homosexual book clubs” and that “it does not belong there.” (This biography was written in 1991.) So Masters and I have opposite ideas about how Fred would feel if he were re-animated, and that is because no one knows. (Who is this guy Brian Masters anyway? He also wrote biographies of a serial killer and necrophiliac, a wicked zoo owner, British dukes, and Marie Corelli.)


Years later Fred said, “I have had more correspondence about [David Blaize] than any other book I ever wrote. That I think has been because there was no ‘book-making’ about it, but it was a genuine piece of self-expression.” And now we have a pleasing moment where I actually agree with both Brian Masters and the guy who wrote the introduction to Freaks of Mayfair, Christopher Hawtree. They both say that 1916 was a turning point in Benson’s development as an artist, as he stopped writing those unconvincing sentimental romances centering on a man and a woman, and began writing the comedies he is now known for. I think it is the fact that Benson is writing about things he actually cares about (in his peculiar way) that makes both David Blaize and Freaks of Mayfair so appealing and yet painful. (I don't mean peculiar in a bad way. He is one of a kind. He sort of has no heart, but usually in a kindly way, and how can someone be kindly with no heart? So it must be there but he is very coy, plus clearly he is not motivated by the same things as most other people. You go read some E.F. Benson and you'll see.)


Two years earlier Benson’s brother Hugh (the Catholic one) died of pneumonia, and in 1916 his sister Maggie died of heart troubles. Based on Final Edition, one of E.F. Benson’s memoirs that he completed just days before his own death, it looks like during 1916 all the extant members of his family were suffering from mental illness or just about to die themselves. So it’s really remarkable that Benson could be so funny and was only about to get funnier.


I’m going to read Final Edition and the slightly annoying biography more carefully instead of just skimming for the good bits. And I should probably read at least one of his other memoirs too. Then I’ll be fully ready for his two novels of 1917. I’m glad I have many more years with E.F. Benson before he dies of throat cancer in 1940. His best books are yet to come!


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