Pleasures of Malice

Make Way for Lucia: The Complete Lucia

by E.F. Benson
Crowell, 913 pp., $14.95

The Edwardian period in English literature which runs, I suppose, from the 1880s until 1914 was prolific in light, satirical Society novelists of remarkable urbanity and invention. The exclusive Meredith was one of the gods; the moment for high comedy had come. One can see why: an age of surfeit had arrived. The lives of the upper classes were both enlivened and desiccated by what seems to have been a continuous diet of lobster and champagne—a diet well suited in its aftereffects to the stimulation of malice. The class system gave the ironies of snobbery their double edge. Society lived out its fairy tale life, spent its time changing its extravagant clothes several times a day, and was entertained by the antics of social climbers. And whether they are writing about manners, high, middling, or low, these light novelists have a common quality: they are accomplished, they are even elegant.

For in this static period we must give society a small “s.” Each class felt itself to be exclusive, even the working class. They all stuck up for their manners and practiced their own ripe exclusiveness and their peculiar formalities. This is as true of the fashionable like Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, or Saki, who are in and out of drawing rooms all day, as it is of writers of minor classics almost unknown abroad, like the Grossmiths in their Diary of a Nobody, or the fairy tales of Wodehouse, the low but polished intrigues of Thames bargees in the tales of W.W. Jacobs, and even the farcical if indigent clerks in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which was translated into dozens of languages. The worlds of these “low” writers were as closed, sedate, and as given to their own euphemisms as the fashionable world was: the light novelists survive only if they write well, within their means. I have often thought that professors of English Lit. should take time off from the central glooms of genius and consider these lesser entertainers who are deeply suggestive; but perhaps it is as well that the Academy winces at the idea for we would hate to see our fun damped down by explication.

One of the characteristics common to Edwardian comedy is that it is a fairy tale for adults—indeed in the double meaning of the word. Its characters are seen as sexless. We can put this down to convention rather than to Puritanism, but the artifice does not mean that the novelist does not know or cannot insinuate what is going on under the surface of manners. It may be the point in the Lucia comedies of E.F. Benson that his people are neutered and that they are exhilarated and liberated by taking part in a useful psychological fraud. His enormously popular Lucia novels, now published in one fat volume, may even be a comically insinuating diagnosis.

What does Lucia, his self-appointed Queen of Riseholme, want as she sits in her fake medieval house or her garden…

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