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Posted on 25 Jul, 2013 in Fiction, Non-Fiction | 15 comments

EF Benson, his life and times. An appreciation by Walter Mason

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efbensonThis literary figure from a forgotten age retains a cult following for his charmingly sharp-eyed novels, which may even have curative powers.

‘We will pay anything for Lucia books,’ read a legendary advertisement in the Times at some point in the 1940s, placed by a collective of desperate fans made up of Nancy Mitford, WH Auden, Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. They were in search of a series of out-of-print comic novels by a deeply unfashionable Edwardian writer called EF Benson. The Lucia novels were to become Benson’s most celebrated creations, six books featuring the monstrous Lucia, a provincial snob, and her plump foil and sworn best enemy Miss Mapp. The other characters in the novels included a neurotic spiritualist called Daisy, a lesbian artist called Quaint Irene and Georgie, Lucia’s best friend, who has been singled out as perhaps the first open and comfortable homosexual in English literature.

The author EF Benson (Fred to his friends) was a handsome, masculine and sporting kind of Englishman who happened to prefer the company of others of the same type. His family was distinguished in English letters, and distinguished also by the fact that, with the exception of their patriarch, every single member was Queer. Benson’s father was the imposing Edward White Benson, Queen Victoria’s favourite Archbishop of Canterbury. Soon after he died, his wife Mary moved her girlfriend into their bedroom, and each of the four Benson children led notable careers as sexual mavericks. AC Benson, EF’s elder brother, was one of the Edwardian era’s bestselling writers, the editor of Queen Victoria’s letters and the man who wrote the lyrics to Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. A Cambridge don, he was a querulous and deeply closeted homosexual who lived in constant fear of exposure and begged brother Fred to observe a greater discretion in his lifestyle.

Baby brother Hugh went on to convert to Catholicism and become a beloved religious writer, Monsignor RH Benson. His early life had been marked by a scandalous association with the half-mad Baron Corvo, perhaps the most notorious gay writer of his age. Together the clan produced an insane number of books, and at Christmas gatherings each would compose something in the style of the other as a parlour game.

dodoEF Benson launched his writing career with a bang, publishing an enormously successful and scandalous novel called Dodo in 1893. Supposedly an expose of the ‘New Woman’, Dodo is now, like much of his earliest work, almost entirely unreadable. Prolific and flexible, Benson turned his hand to many different genres through the course of his career, including schoolboy novels, ghost stories and the then-fashionable biographies of great and famous characters in England’s history. He never really rose up to his early promise, however, until he published his first Lucia novel, Queen Lucia, in 1920. It was an instant success, and Benson became famous as a chronicler of a dying breed of pretentious provincial remnants of the upper middle class, people who had retired on army pensions or were living carefully off investments by settling in cheap seaside villages.

This lifestyle was, of course, the very one that Benson himself had begun to lead, hence his acute knowledge of the divorced opera singers, dowager duchesses and penny-pinching parsons who populate his brilliant novels. What distinguishes the books is that, no matter how ghastly the actions of the characters, the reader never ceases to love them completely and hope for the very best for them. And anyone who has ever lived in a small town can recognise the hierarchy of citizenry that is brutally enforced in such places.

queenluciaAfter his death in 1940 Benson’s books fell out of print and were viewed as quaint Edwardian artefacts, comic novels of manners that described a forgotten age of gentility and fierce social division. They were rediscovered by the Bright Young Things when they were becoming less Young, and who recognised in the books a brilliant eye for character and conflict, and a masterful but decidedly camp authorial voice. The Lucia novels would have an enormous impact on the subsequent Golden Age of British writing, influencing the comic work of Mitford, Waugh and Coward.

Benson seems doomed, however, to remain a cult writer. Since his death his books have enjoyed periodic vogues, springing back into print in the 1970s, being turned into a (very good) TV series by London Weekend Television in the 1980s and reissued again in the 1990s. The EF Benson Society has the status of a secret club and for over 70 years now eager Bensonophiles have driven up the prices of his books in rare book catalogues, making him one of the most collected, and collectable, writers of his age.

as we wereAs well as the Lucia books, Benson’s later memoir work is very fine, carrying that same arch, observant but always-kind voice. His books As We Are and As We Were were both reissued in recent years, and his memoir of his mother is also noteworthy, though hard to get.

Mention EF Benson on social media and you will be inundated with people quietly confessing their passionate love for the Lucia books. The Anglosphere is dotted with Benson-obsessives who carry an encyclopaedic knowledge of his settings and characters around in their heads, and periodically some writers are even brave enough to attempt to write ‘new’ Benson novels. But the Lucia novels are untouchable in their perfection, and once read will never be left alone for more than a year at a stretch. I have even discovered the books’ curative properties – whenever I come down with the flu the first thing I do is reach for one of them and sit down and read until I am restored to good health.

Walter Mason is a writer, spiritual tourist and a lifelong dilettante. He is the author of the memoir Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam (Allen & Unwin, 2010), and you can visit his blog here.

 

 

15 Comments

    • Kristen – I have often dreamed of the Folio Society editions, and you have tempted me once more….

  1. Fascinating post, Walter. I must admit, I’d only vaguely heard of E F Benson in passing before – now, thanks to you, he’s all over Twitter today!

    I’d be interested to know which Benson novel you (or anyone else reading this!) would recommend as an accessible introduction to his works?

    • But I think you could pick up any of the Lucia books and be lost and entertained without needing to know the developing story. I read them out of order first and was enchanted.

  2. Another fan of E F Benson here, Lucia and Mapp books that is. They used to be in two volumes Penguin classic set- Lucia Rising and Lucia Victrix, a trilogy in each

    Dodo is harder going, though I managed it, would not recommend. Some ghost stories ditto.

    The side characters and social trends- mysticism, yoga, exercise, clairvoyance remind me of the those in Richmal Crompton William books.

    The 1980’s series of Lucia is very slow, and disappointing, even though it has some great poeple, including Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne( as Georgie).

    • Oh yes – Dodo is a bit of a chore – I always have the feeling I am not “getting” something. I believe even Benson thought it was terrible in his later years.

      I’ve never read the Just William books, and had no idea they covered those subjects you mentioned (easily my favourite subjects in the world) – shall now look them up, thank you.

      I must defend the TV series – it has a wonderfully rickety quality, and I find it completely absorbing. Plus it has the mellow veneer of vintage TV now.

  3. The starting point, as so many people agree, is the Mapp & Lucia novels. Something special happened when Benson came up with those characters which enabled him to produce comic writing which I think stands alongside P G Wodehouse in quality. “Queen Lucia” is the first of the six, and it is brilliant. For my money the second in the series “Lucia in London” is the masterpiece, but you must read “Queen Lucia” first to get the best from it. After that, he introduces the character of Elizabeth Mapp and the action moves to Tilling, a small town based closely on Rye in Sussex where Benson lived later in life (he lived in a fine Queen Anne house which had previously been the home of Henry James).

    I also admire greatly his ghost stories, the best of which, in my view, stand comparison with M R James. I’ve read about a dozen other Benson novels most of which, in truth, can only be seen as period curiosities, though “David Blaize” and its sequel “David at King’s” are quite involving in their way. “Mrs Ames” is also worth attention but save it until you’ve tried the Mapp & Lucia series. I also have fond memories of “Colin” and “Colin II” which I seem to recall have odd supernatural undercurrents going on, but it’s many years since I read them.

    But thank you for your thoughts on Benson. I would certainly encourage people to read the Mapp & Lucia series which really ought to be counted among the great works of English comic literature.

    • “Lucia in London” is my favourite as well!

      You know, I have always been impatient with Wodehouse. Should I give him a second try?

      Yes, the rest of the fiction is uninspiring now. But the memoir is great – with much of the same humour of the Lucia books. I rock with laughter when he describes his peculiar relations.

      • Good to encounter another Lucia-in-Londoner. Most fans tend to rate the four Mapp & Lucia books above the first two.

        I don’t know what to suggest regarding Wodehouse. Probably if you haven’t warmed to him by now, you never will. I return to him from time-to-time and find him perfect reading for days when I’m feeling a bit down and sorry for myself. He’s comforting. But in truth I return far more often to the Lucia books. Wodehouse had an exquisite and original prose-style, but his scenarios are entirely synthetic (though beguiling). The Lucia books, on the other hand, are entirely based in the real world. It’s a lavender-scented and plumped-up world, to be sure, and the characters do at times border on caricature, but here is human nature laid bare. Benson’s characters remind you of people you know. Wodehouse’s are cherishable fantasy friends.

      • I for one do recommend that you give Wodehouse a second try. If you don’t care for the stories of the wealthy but mentally negligible drone, Bertie Wooster, and his man, Jeeves, I recommend a short story collection, such as Nothing Serious (1950), or the finest comic novel ever written in a German internment camp, Money in the Bank (1942).
        My favourite is Leave It to Psmith (1923); read my son’s review of an earlier Psmith novel, Mike and Psmith (first published in 1909) here.

  4. I loved Wodehouse, though I haven’t reread him for ages. I do remember thinking my then teenaged daughter was drowning in the bath one night, given the strangled noises she was making, but when I went in, alarmed, she was crying with laughter over a Wodehouse. I think she still does!

    He was racist and classist and you’d say sexist, too, except his female characters are all much stronger than Bertie and give even Jeeves a bit of a runaround, but his comic dialogue was a dream.

    I also read all the William books when I was a kid, though I don’t remember the clairvoyance, just that he was very grubby and ‘naughty’ and his sister had lots of boyfriends with pomaded hair and those awful little moustaches. JB

    • I beg to differ with your odd assessment that Wodehouse was “racist and classist” since, even from his earliest school stories, Wodehouse was notably anti-classist and egalitarian—perhaps you were confused by his concentration on an invented Edwardian English nobility (and their servants, and visiting, idle drones etc.) in his stories, which was partly motivated by his certain knowledge that those stories earned him the most in the American market—and, as for his alleged racism, his characters do wear blackface on occasion, but this was by no means an uncommon feature of entertainment in the earlier parts of the nineteenth century, and his personal life (as demonstrated by his letters) was remarkable for his lack of prejudice.

      • Sorry; for “earlier parts of the nineteenth century”, please read “earlier parts of the twentieth century”.

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