Let’s start the week as we mean to go on – with a review of a rather good book. The book in question is Secret Lives (1932) by Mr. E.F. Benson. Thanks to Nancy for bringing this to my attention absolutely AGES ago, I was finally able to get around to it just before I was struck down with illness.
It’s no secret that I love, love, and love the Mapp and Lucia series, as do many of you, but I hadn’t read any other EFB novels – despite having quite a few on my shelves. Secret Lives is reportedly the closest to that series and, although it isn’t as good as them, it certainly has the same spirit.
Think Lucia in London for the setting – i.e., we’re not in a Tillingesque village, we’re instead on the exclusive Durham Square in London. Exclusive, indeed, because Mrs. Mantrip’s father had systematically whittled his tenants down to the respectable and well-to-do, making sure Durham Square became the residency of choice for the highest society in London. And, for all that, it is incredibly provincial in its in-fighting, and the fact that everybody knows everybody else’s business. For a start, there is the matter of dogs in the garden. Mrs. Mantrip’s father (whom she reveres, and whose Life she is gradually writing – or, indeed, thinking about writing) expressly forbade it. But Elizabeth Conklin and her ten Pekinese – all circling her on leads – are keen to oppose. Cue all the wonderful cattiness and polite venom which fans of Mapp and Lucia have come to expect.
But then the title comes into play. ‘Below the seeming tranquillity of the Square surprising passions and secret lives were seething in unsuspected cauldrons.’ Margaret Mantrip’s secret passion, despite her outward literary pretensions, is for the novels of Rudolf da Vinci. Think Marie Corelli – i.e. atrociously written, probably addictive, lots of swooning heroines and dashing heroes.
The only distinguished thing about it, from a literary point of view, was its unique lack of distinction. It was preposterous to the last degree, but there was a sumptuousness about it, and, though nauseatingly moral in its conclusion, there was also fierceness, a sadism running like a scarlet thread through its portentous pages.
Margaret keeps these titles on a bottom shelf, hidden by a curtain and surrounded by her father’s collection of theological titles… And then there is mysterious Susan Leg who has recently moved into the Square – very wealthy, but says ‘Pardon?’ and ‘serviette’ and serves caviar spread on scones. What’s going on?
It doesn’t take an overly-perceptive reader to realise quite quickly that Rudolph da Vinci and Susan Leg are one and the same. And, indeed, E.F. Benson doesn’t leave us in the dark for long. In the hands of a lesser novelist, Leg’s unveiling might have been the denouement – but Benson is more interested in the intrigue and humour to be found in deception and social superficiality. Throw in an anonymous society columnist and a scathing reviewer, and there is enough confusion and hypocrisy all round to make the most ardent Tillingite happy.
As I said at the beginning, Secret Lives doesn’t match the brilliance of the Mapp and Lucia series, where every character (even when a bit two-dimensional) is a delight – but, once you’ve exhausted that series, this is a wonderful place to look. And a middlebrow novelist being biting about lesser novelists – and, especially, about critics – is always good fun. Thank you, Nancy, for recommending this novel – I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
I forgot about the Books to get Stuck into feature on my Persephone reviews (N.B. the poll results, with all 163 votes, are up now – thanks for voting!) but here they are, back again. Obviously the best companion novels, if Secret Lives sounds intriguing, are the Mapp and Lucia series, and Tom Holt’s or Guy Fraser-Sampson’s sequels, but here are some other suggestions:
Books to get Stuck into:
Elizabeth Taylor: Angel – although not very similar in tone, the wonderfully awful and self-unaware Angel is also modelled on the Marie Corelli type.
Rose Macaulay: Keeping Up Appearances – funny and arch, this 1920s novel has a mediocre novelist, but also all sorts of secrets and secret lives tangled up together, and is definitely worth seeking out.