Many of us sigh despondently when we reach the end of a much-loved book or series of books. It seems unfair, somehow, that there is no third book in the Winnie the Pooh series, or that Jane Austen wrote no sequel to Pride and Prejudice, or that E.F. Benson, despite being incredibly prolific, only wrote six books in the Mapp and Lucia series – and only three featuring both heroines together.
In each of these cases, other authors have stepped into the authors’ shoes. I wrote about David Benedictus’s Return to the Hundred Acre Wood earlier in the year, and of the writing of Jane Austen sequels there is no end. Some are brilliant (Diana Birchall’s Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, for instance) and some are decidedly not. Our eagerness for more of our favourite characters is matched only be our wariness and trepidation that usurping authors will have made a mess of things. Thank goodness, then, for Guy Fraser-Sampson.
I adore the sniping, gloriously funny world of Mapp and Lucia, and I know I will read and re-read Benson’s books throughout my life. But it’s also wonderful to know that there are others to read when the series is complete. I’ve not tried Tom Holt’s two sequels, although they are waiting on my shelves, but I love and adore Major Benjy and (now) Lucia on Holiday by Guy F-S.
The reason they are so delicious is that Guy ‘gets’ the voice of Benson so perfectly. I can honestly say that, while reading Lucia on Holiday, I kept forgetting that it wasn’t Benson’s pen which had written it – and what higher compliment could possibly be paid?
Lucia on Holiday takes place after Mapp and Lucia, but it is not made clear exactly when in the chronology the story takes place. The ambiguity is bashfully explained in the introduction – because there is an event in the novel which dates it very precisely, but which would make it a touch out of kilter with the publication history of the original series – but, as Guy says in this introduction, since Benson moved his principal village from one county to another, he’d be very forgiving. It does not, in the end, much matter – Mapp and Lucia et al behave precisely as they would at any point in their history.
As you may guess from the title, Lucia is on holiday – she cashes in some clever (if risky) investments, and heads off to Italy with husband Georgie in tow. But Elizabeth Mapp isn’t having that, of course – not for she to be gloried over forever in Tilling society. Luckily, her friendly Maharajah wishes his son to be accompanied on holiday to Europe… and Mapp decides that precisely Lucia’s hotel would be the best place. Mr and Mrs Wyse also turn up, as does my favourite character, insouciant opera singer Olga Bracely, so (with a few Bensonian coincidences) we have a microcosm of Tilling society gathered. If we miss Quaint Irene and Diva Plaistow, then, well, we’ve coped without Daisy Quantock for several books, and both ladies are much present in recollection and quotation.
What ensues certainly has a plot, and goes nearer the knuckle than Benson could possibly have done in the 1920s and 1930s (c.f. Georgie and his handsome valet), but is chiefly joyful for the constant oneupmanship and subtle bitchery between our heroines. Anyone who has read the original series will be familiar with the sort of thing – neither ever makes an outright insult (or, if they do, it is in an unguarded moment) – but there are plenty that hide behind the thinnest of veils. Lucia delights, for example, in making subtle references to occasions on which Mapp sabotaged someone else’s cake, and Mapp… well, Mapp, as always (sadly!) so rarely gets the overhand. And, as always, I cheer her on, hoping that Lucia will be smited just once.
As I say, Guy F-S has understood and echoed Benson’s tone so wonderfully – I especially like his moments of narrative bitching, exposing the self-delusion of the grande dames. This excerpt, early in the novel, was the moment I cheerfully knew I was in safe hands – it is perfect as a depiction of how ridiculous Mapp is, and how delusional:
“Benjy!” she gasped, clasping her hands together in what she felt sure was girlish glee. “But of course – that’s brilliant!”
My only reservations in characterisation were that things are pushed that tiniest bit too far for my liking. Georgie seems genuinely to hate Lucia much of the time, without the constant, grudging admiration and love he feels in the original series (although this does come out eventually in Lucia on Holiday). Mapp is a shade too monstrous, and Major Benjy a shade too lascivious – but these are only shades, and the fact that it comes down to tiny details is itself astonishing.
Of course, you must start with the originals. If you haven’t read them, do start with Queen Lucia (not Mapp and Lucia itself, which is the fourth in the series) – you may have to struggle past the baby talk, which is mercifully scarce in Guy F-S’s book, but it’s worth it. Once you’ve read and relished them – you can be overjoyed to know that these will be waiting.