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It was two years ago – on a date, in fact – that I was first introduced to the elite of the Tilling social circuit via a BBC adaptation of E.F. Benson’s classic novels. The show explored (and exploited) some of their most ill-fated endeavours in fighting to become the most highly regarded resident in town. Such exploits, however, came with much embarrassment and fabulous humiliation.
Their names: Miss. Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs. Emmeline Lucas
Mapp & Lucia
Benson wrote six ‘Mapp & Lucia’ titles in total, initially depicting the eponymous characters separately, before bringing them together in the fourth novel – simply titled Mapp and Lucia – in which Mapp leases her house in Tilling to Lucia for the summer, initiating a great series of escapades.
The two at first appear fond of one another – seemingly because Lucia recognises her aesthetic superiority over Mapp, while Mapp notices flaws in Lucia’s apparent intellect – yet it takes little time before each is seen trying to get one over on the other, by simultaneously exposing the other’s follies and enlisting the other residents of Tilling in the other’s humiliation.
Lucia, for example, claims to be fluent in Italian which proves problematic when Amelia, Contessa di Faraglione, arrives in Tilling. She also professes to being a concert pianist, albeit one who can only play the most simple Mozart. Mapp, on the other hand, is constantly the butt of the joke, as Lucia constantly manages to second guess her making her appear only jealous and bitter.
What is most fabulous in Benson’s writing, however, is the sheer bitchiness of the characters, which is totally infectious (I’ll admit, I have been compared with Lucia before now – and I LOVE it!). Case in point, even when trying to break Mapp down, Lucia appears benevolent towards her: “she can’t help being deeply grateful to me if there are any depths in that poor shallow nature. There may be: we must try to discover them.”
The series garnered a huge cult following and, in 1984, Channel 4 debuted a five-part series adapted from the ‘Mapp & Lucia’ novels. Starring Prunella Scales and Geraldine McEwan in the respective titular roles, the show ran for two seasons and makes for a fabulous, camper than Christmas watch. McEwan, in particular, is a beacon, and her relationship with the overtly gay yet closeted Mr. Georgie (Nigel Hawthorn) makes for some of the most memorable scenes, breathing a new lease of life into Benson’s narrative.
The secret to the longevity of the novels, and certainly a testament to Benson himself, is just how relatable his characters are. Everyone knows a Mapp or Lucia, and so can relate to the battle for dominance that never quite works out, and one’s petty attempt to usurp the other. The series gave the world the classic catchphrase “au reservoir” – coined by Lucia, who tired of the traditional French parting words – which became a bone of contention between the two, as Mapp tried mercilessly to incorporate it into her own language. This is but one of the running quarrels between the two throughout.
All of the novels are fabulous, but to single out just one, Mapp and Lucia is perhaps the most instantly engaging read, taking off as soon as the characters meet and their rivalry begins. But any trip to Tilling will leave you wanting more, as you become embroiled in the scintillating saga of Miss. Mapp and Mrs. Lucas.
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