The Osbornes by E.F. Benson

I’ve been off for a week in a beautiful chateau in the Loire Valley – this one, to be precise, in case you want to follow suit – though I left a couple of scheduled posts to tide me over. There were 17 of us, most of whom I’d only met a few times or not at all – but it was such a wonderful week. Beautiful surroundings, wonderful people, lots of fun, and lots of reading. I read four books in the five days we were there (because the first and last days were basically all driving) and one of those was The Osbornes (1910) by E.F. Benson.

The Osbournes

This is only the third book I’ve read by E.F. Benson that falls outside the excellent Mapp and Lucia series (which I’ve read twice). My shelves have plenty of his books on them, though, and I’d decided to stop buying them until I’d sampled some more – and loved Daisy’s Aunt around this time last year. Unintentionally, I picked a novel from the same year – yes, he had three novels published in 1910; check out his Wikipedia page to see how astonishingly prolific he was. Even more astonishing, both novels are really rather good.

The Osbornes considers a question that has echoed throughout English literary history almost from when it began: what happens when you love outside your own class? From Pamela to Lady Chatterley’s Lover and onwards, this topic has (in its different forms) been a peculiarly English preoccupation. And it is at the forefront of The Osbornes, where Dora falls in love with the Adonis-like Claude. Claude’s family is the Osbornes of the title – nouveau riche, and not ‘quite quite’.

Nobody disputes that he and his family are kind and good, but their money has not brought them a sense of what is right to say and what is not. Not that they have come from the gutter; Claude went to Eton and Cambridge, and the list of things that Dora’s family object to make for rather mysterious reading, over a century since the novel was written. Here is Dora’s (selfish, grabbing) brother on the topic of Claude:

“I think Claude has masses of good points: he simply bristles with them, but he gives one such shocks. He goes on swimmingly for a time, and then suddenly says that somebody is ‘noble-looking’, or that the carpet is ‘tasteful’ or ‘superior’.”

It’s not exactly spitting on the floor, is it? But it is enough to irritate Dora once they are married, and once the gleam of lust has worn off. She is very fond of his parents, but cannot help seeing the same things in them – Mr and Mrs Osborne (senior) come with them on a trip to Venice, but are more impressed by the metalwork they see than by the architecture. The size of the paintings in a gallery astonishes them, rather than the artists’ genius. It prickles Dora over and over.

You could draw a gallon of pure fresh kindness from that well-spring which also was inexhaustible, but even before you had time to put your lips to it, and drink of it, some drop – quite a little drop – would trickle in from the source of his vulgarity and taint it all. It was even worse than that; there was a permanent leak from the one into the other; the kindness was tainted at the source.

More on the kindness in a minute. But this did make me think – obviously we laugh at this sort of snobbery now, particularly when it’s so hard to see the nuances that bothered them so much. But I wonder if it has been replaced with other sorts of things – codes that we are used to in our families, and can’t imagine making new relations outside of that perimeter. This struck me when the topic of humour came up – I certainly wouldn’t say I looked down on people who had a completely different sense of humour from me, but it would make forming close bonds very difficult. We may feel angry with Dora and Jim from our 21st-century vantage (agreeing with the character who says “how God must laugh at our divisions of classes. We must look like children arranging books by the colour of their covers instead of their contents”) but that is to miss the point of the contemporary setting, perhaps? Any seismic class shift in England was still around forty years away.

The strength of this novel doesn’t lie, though, in this moral maze. It’s in the Osbornes – not Dora and Claude by Claude’s parents. I loved hearing all your suggestions for happy marriages the other day (and keep meaning to reply, not least because some of them certainly don’t meet my mental criteria!) and here is certainly one. Eddie and Mrs O (as they call each other) have one of the most beautiful marriages I’ve ever read about – and Benson treads just on the right side of saccharine for the reader to swallow it. They have been together since they had little, but in their riches want no more than each other’s company, laughing at the same weak family jokes that have occupied them for decades. There is a little wisdom in them, but only really a little – mostly, Benson paints strengths of character and, yes, kindness.

His wickedly funny cynical side doesn’t emerge in this novel, and an unkind reader might think there are moments in here that are too sentimental – but either I was beguiled by the beautiful French countryside, or Benson manages to get away with it. He remains funny throughout, and dodges a tricky societal quandary by having a bit of an easy out in the end, but somehow the ingredients all add up to another delightful offering from a pen that doesn’t seem able to do anything but delight.

Note: I accidentally wrote ‘Osbournes’ every time in my initial version of this post – thanks for noticing, Tony!

Daisy’s Aunt by E.F. Benson

I have so many E.F. Benson books on my shelves – they’re not tricky to pick up in secondhand bookshops, if you’re patient – but almost all of them are unread. Besides the excellent Mapp and Lucia series, which I’ve read twice (though not for years), I’ve only read Secret Lives. And I thought it was about time that I remedied that. I’m so glad I did – Daisy’s Aunt (1910) is faintly ridiculous, but entirely enjoyable.

Daisy's Aunt

The opening scene, and opening paragraph, is classic Edwardian insouciance of the variety that Benson does charmingly:

Daisy Hanbury poked here parasol between the bars of the cage, with the amiable intention of scratching the tiger’s back. The tiger could not be expected to know this all by himself, and so he savagely bit the end of it off, with diabolical snarlings. Daisy turned to her cousin with a glow of sympathetic pleasure.

If you are not instantly charmed by both author and character, then I don’t know if I can help you. The scene has no other purpose – she almost instantly leaves the zoo, with her subservient friend Gladys in tow, and the incident is scarcely mentioned again. But it has set Daisy up as reckless, amusing, and rather lovable – which is just as well, as we have to take it as read that she is charming for much of the subsequent novel.

The novel, indeed, has all the benefits of the typical Edwardian novel, as well as its drawbacks (if such they be). It is frothy and indulgently charming (that word again) – and the plot makes almost no sense. But I’ll do my best. Look away if you want no spoilers at all, but these are the main facts which lead to the bulk of the plot:

  • Daisy’s young aunt Jeannie (after whom the US title for this novel, The Fascinating Mrs Halton, is named) is returning from a year abroad, and finds that Daisy is hoping a Lord Lindfield will propose.
  • Jeannie knows that Lord L was (ahem) a cad with Daisy’s sister in Paris – but had made a deathbed promise to the sister never to disclose this.
  • Oh yes, the sister (Diana) is dead, but most people thought she’d died five years before this.
  • The only solution Jeannie can see is to flirt with Lord Lindfield until Daisy sees that he is no better than he ought to be, and foreswears him.
  • There’s another gent who loves Daisy, and one who’s secretly engaged to Jeannie.

Phew! There we have it. Obviously Jeannie’s plan is ridiculous, even given the mores of the day, and there is any number of better plans, but she apparently can think of none of them – and does all this from love of Daisy. Jeannie Halton is, indeed, a kind and lovable woman, otherwise sensible and (yes) charming. Little does she know that Daisy has gone from thinking she might as well marry Lord L as anyone, to actually loving him…

Tangled webs, and all that. We see most things from the perspective of either Jeannie or Daisy, and the events of the novel chiefly take place during a house party in a beautiful riverside cottage – lots of the idle rich staying for a few days together, and gossiping about each other. One of my favourite sections of the novel, actually, was the indulgently long time Benson spends describing this idyllic house – from informal, winding garden to the welcoming rooms. And particularly this bit:

At the other end, and facing it, the corresponding kitchen range of the second range had also been cleared out, but the chimney above it had been boarded in, and a broad, low settee ran around the three sides of it. Above this settee, and planted into the wall, so that the head of those uprising should not come in contact with the shelves, was a bookcase full of delectable volumes, all fit to be taken down at random, and opened at random, all books that were familiar friends to any who had friends among that entrancing family. Tennyson was there, and all Thackeray; Omar Khayyam was there, and Alice in Wonderland; Don Quixote rubbed covers with John Inglesant, and Dickens found a neighbour in Stevenson.

My version of this library would be updated by a couple of decades (I have to confess to never having heard of John Inglesant), but doesn’t it sound wonderful?

And so the novel goes – never sensational, and always at least a little witty, but with genuine stakes for those involved. But the reader has no real anxiety. We know that such a novel, from such an author, can’t end but happily. It reminded me rather of Herbert Jenkins’ delightful Patricia Brent, Spinster; it is the same sort of delicious silliness that passes a sunny day beautifully. I’m glad that I’ve finally looked in more depth at my Benson shelf – and must make sure to return to it before too long.

 

Ssshhhh…

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.

Mapp and Lucia


I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for over a year and not made mention of a series of books which I’m sure you all either do love or will love – the Mapp & Lucia series by EF Benson. I’ve recently had the pleasure of watching Elaine at Random Jottings succumb to Elizabeth and Emmeline, and it has set me off re-reading. I’ve only read the first four of the six, actually, and if you throw in Tom Holt’s well-respected sequels (in the style of EF Benson) then I have only got halfway. More news on Benson sequels very soon…


For those who don’t know, EF Benson wrote Queen Lucia in 1920, Miss Mapp in 1922, Lucia in London in 1927 – and by 1931 had the brilliant idea to bring his creations together in Mapp and Lucia. I haven’t read the final two books, as I say, but presume that the characters remain united enemies in them. Mapp and Lucia are not likeable characters, by any means – both with their varying pretensions and self-delusions, but both holding sway over their neighbourhood, there is inevitable friction and competition when they meet. And these characters, especially when they meet, are an absolute delight to read about. We laugh at them, we are fond of them, we realise how intimidating it would be to meet them in real life.


My dear friend Barbara-in-Ludlow introduced me to these books, back in 2004, very kindly lending me her beautiful Folio edition. These were returned when I went to university, and I bought up the Black Swan paperback editions. Very nice, even featured in my post about favourite book covers – but I did hanker for the beautiful Folio editions. When I was reading Barbara’s, I was so worried I’d get them dirty that I read them with custom-made brown-paper covers. What can people have thought I was reading… Anyway, I found this boxset secondhand in Oxford, and was utterly delighted. Annoyingly, I have to use my glasses to read them (never know why this is true of some books and not others – nothing to do with font size) but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.


Advance apologies to anyone who now must go out and buy this edition… but it’s worth it.