Trouble for Lucia is the last in E.F. Benson’s wonderful series of books detailing the social struggles of Riseholme and Tilling, and of course the queen of all small-town heartaches and victories, the incomparable Lucia herself.
In Lucia’s Progress, the book just previous to this, Lucia was elected Mayor of Tilling. It seemed a triumph nothing could mar. But of course, not all one’s life can be lived at such a summit, and Lucia must decide how she will go on. One of the most important (and utterly absurd) decisions she must make is who will be her Mayoress, because every Mayor of Tilling has always had a Mayoress. (To be honest, I thought her husband Georgie, with his taste for embroidery and bibelots, would have been a wonderful Mayoress, but no one asked my opinion.) Lucia chooses the vicious, small-minded, and vindictive Elizabeth Mapp, hoping to keep her muzzled and under control, but things quickly become slippery.
This is a marvelously meandering and episodic book, as are the others. One farcical situation leads to another, and the pleasure and comfort is watching the quick-witted Lucia find her way out of each one. She starts a bicycling craze in Tilling, and when she’s summoned for excessive speed (because she can’t remember how to put on the brake), she garners a reputation for dash and athleticism; when she’s suspected of fraud and deception, she comes out with a more brilliant reputation than ever.
Benson may have called the book Trouble for Lucia, but any genuine trouble is trouble that she brews for herself, by taking herself too seriously. When Georgie grows tired of her constant, selfish prattle about very trivial mayoral business, day in and day out, he is tempted by the seductive Olga Bracely. But Lucia is not slow to understand this situation, either: her real talent, as Georgie puts it, is for “making things happen,” and this is what she does, in the end, for herself and all of Tilling.
Incidentally, the other books have all seemed so timeless, but I noticed two or three mentions in this book — published in 1939 — that Britain was on the brink of war. Mussolini is mentioned at least twice, and someone who is getting ready to travel to Italy notes that it may not be safe to go there because of the recent unpleasantness. For books that are so intentionally insulated, I found this incursion interesting.
This book, like all the other Lucia books, is wisely and closely observed. Benson’s characters just squeak in before being caricatures, and they are both extremely funny and very astute ways of seeing the interactions of class and gender at a certain level in small towns. These books are there to read and re-read. What a comfort and a pleasure.