Wednesday, June 23, 2010

E. F. Benson - Inspirations Along the Way #3

I have to admit that it was reading the letters of Nancy Mitford that made me aware of the novels of E. F. Benson. Mitford, Waugh, Lord Berners and many others among the Smart Young Things were in love with Benson's series of Lucia novels, though by then they were long out of print and difficult to get hold of. The socialites even went as far as to take out classified ads in magazines and newspapers saying "We will pay anything for Lucia novels." Mitford again and again claimed they were her favourite books, and she admitted they were a major influence on her own comic novels.
When I started searching for E. F. Benson he was, once more, an obscure and largely forgotten figure. The novels were all out of print, but I managed to find in the library an old hardcover of Mapp & Lucia, and a love affair began.
Benson is one of those writers who seems to attract a cult each generation, and I am happy to note that all of the Lucia novels are in print at the moment. But I still remember the fun of searching for second-hand copies of the books over a number of years, and occasionaly stumbling upon another Bensonophile, even, very rarely, the occasional person who'd gone to the great fuss and expense of joining the Benson Society in the UK.
E. F. Benson was an Edwardian writer who came from one of those extraordinary families that could only ever emerge in England. His father had been Queen Victoria's Archbishop of Canterbury, and all of the Benson sons became writers of repute. His older brother A. C. Benson was a bestselling diarist, whose yearly collections of essays and observations had an enormous audience in Edwardian England. His younger brother rather scandalously fell into the arms of the Roman Church, and became famous as Monsignor R. H. Benson, a prolific writer on matters Catholic (some of his ghastly devotional novels are still in print).
What is really fascinating is that every single member of the family was homosexual (except the father), which must have made for very interesting family dinners.
E. F. Benson's legendary Lucia novels are camp comic masterpieces, set among the overly-genteel but constantly impoverished upper-middle-classes in small-town Southern England. The heroine of the novels is the insufferable Lucia, a monstrously vain and pretentious middle-aged beauty who reigns as the queen of provincial society. Her nemesis is the plump and jealous Miss Mapp, a miserly and mean-spirited gossip who always fails to defeat the blithely abominbable Lucia. The other great character of the novels is Georgie, a prissy and difficult little queen who is mothered by the sundry widows and spinsters who populate Benson's world. Some have suggested that he is the first open and comfortable homosexual in the English novel, and I can't help but wonder if he isn't a version of Benson himself.
The Lucia novels are laugh-out-loud funny, and in many ways terrifically modern. They are beautifully written and conceived, and as a chronicler of a particular moment in English history, Benson cannot be beaten. He also wote a number of memoirs and biographies, all of which are equally as beautifully written. Like his brothers, Benson was unstoppably prolific in his writing, and much of his other fiction (and yes, I do own almost all of it) is unreadable now.
But the Lucia novels remain brilliant, and whenever I am feeling blue I know I can pick any of them up and lose myself instantly in their bizarrely complex and utterly charming worlds.


  1. I found your blog through a Google search to see if EF Benson might have read Proust. (the similarities between Tilling evenings and Mme. Verdurin's Wednesdays intrigue me)

    How delightful to find a kindred spirit, as I'm also a huge Nancy Mitford fan. I spent a happy half-hour visiting her apartment on the rue Monsieur, which remains one of my fondest memories.


  2. Julie! If things were different I'd marry you!
    I am intrigued by your thoughts about Proust and Benson. There's an academic paper in that... I know that Nancy M read Proust (in French, the old showoff!). I suspect that you, like me, also find Proust hilariously funny - people just don't realise how readable and light he is. Have you ever read Edmund White's little book on Proust? It's a treasure.
    And so jealous you got to see the Rue Monsieur - I have only imagined it!


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