I recently spent three days on a school camping trip with my daughter. It’s fortunate that we were in cabins, because it poured rain, and when the rushing sound of the rain ominously stopped, it was because the wet snow was coming down. The children bravely went on hikes during intermittent, raw, chilly pauses in the weather, and had outdoor lessons, but I stayed inside as a kitchen assistant. When I wasn’t chopping vegetables or making sandwiches for seventy-five, I was reading Miss Mapp, by E.F. Benson. I could not have made a happier choice.
I’ve been reading the Mapp and Lucia books in the order they’re often read, with Queen Lucia (1920) and Lucia in London (1927) coming first, so at first I missed the cast of characters at Riseholme. I wasn’t many pages into Miss Mapp, however, before I was elbow-deep into the affairs of the small town of Tilling, and enjoying myself wholeheartedly. Where Lucia, ambitious as she is, rules with her iron fist well-concealed in a velvet glove, Miss Mapp conceals nothing at all except her own misdeeds. Her iron is out in plain sight, whether it’s hissing insults at a bridge game (followed by an acidic “dear”) or angling to out-dress her best friend/ enemy, Diva Plaistow. Miss Mapp is deliciously malicious, and her extra venom causes her more problems than Lucia’s cunning: on several occasions, Miss Mapp is caught in the pit she has dug herself.
Oh, these books are funny! At heart, both the Riseholme books and this one examine the one-upmanship, the snobbery, the battle for social and cultural prestige in a very small circle of very small people. They are light-hearted, almost farce, in the same vein as Wodehouse books, but they also provide insight into the way people in such a close-knit community interact with each other. For instance, at the height of a wicked (and extremely funny) battle between Miss Mapp and Diva over a dress, you have this conundrum:
Naturally any permanent quarrel was not contemplated by either of them, for if quarrels were permanent in Tilling, nobody would be on speaking terms any more with anyone else in a day or two, and (hardly less disastrous) there could be no fresh quarrels with anybody, since you could not quarrel without words. There might be songs without words, as Mendelssohn had proved, but not rows without words.
In the end, they reach a creative solution, and go on fighting and spying and making up and gossiping until the end of the novel. This is beautifully-written comfort reading. Who could ask for more?
I read this book sitting by a fire and listening to the rain outside. Somehow, reading about the duel between Captain Puffin and Major Flint, or the visit of the Countess Faradiddleony, was improved by the bad weather. I laughed with pleasure. I wish you equal joy of Miss Mapp, whatever your weather.