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 where only Shakespearean flowers are allowed to grow? Certainly not sex. Not even connubial sex; her ruling passions are for power and publicity; she wants the gossip columns to mention her. She wants to dish her rivals. What about her husband, Peppino, writing his privately printed and artily bound little poems? No sex there or, we can guess, elsewhere. The pair have sublimated in dozens of little arty affectations, their happy marriage consolidated by the lies of baby talk and in snobbish snatches of Italian they have picked up from waiters in Italy. When an Italian singer comes to stay they can’t understand a word he says.
And what about Georgie, Lucia’s devoted cicisbeo, always on the go socially when she commands, playing his bits of Mozart to her, listening to her playing the first movement of “dear Beethoven’s” Moonlight Sonata—the second is too fast. Georgie keeps changing his clothes, sits in his doll’s house, doing his embroidery, painting a little picture or two, and being “busy at home” one day a week when he is having his toupee fixed and his hair dyed. Homosexual probably, but no boys in sight; certainly a Narcissus. There is no need to tell us: he gives himself away in his frenzied cult of youth, his fuss about his bibelots, his malicious pleasure in seeing through “cara” Lucia’s snobbery, her frauds, and her lies instantly, enjoying his horror of her as a sister figure he cannot do without. And then there are the various loud masculine ladies of the clique in Riseholme: hearty butches in combat with Lucia’s bitcheries; even the surrounding overweight wives with their sulking or choleric husbands are without children and exist in stertorous comic relief. The servants are faithful. The monstrous Lady Ambermere calls her’s “my people,” as if she were an empress. The obsequious tradesmen of the town seem to be the only people engaged—but off the scene—in the vulgar task of begetting their kind.
Since it is not sex that makes this world go round, what does? Gossip above all, spying from windows, plotting about teas and dinner parties, a genteel greed for money and news, and above all matching wits against Lucia’s ruthless gifts. Our culture hound, who poses at her window, swots up in the Encyclopedia before distinguished guests arrive, pretending to have read Nietzsche or Theophrastus, can’t distinguish between Schumann and Schubert. She steals a guru from Daisy Quantock, hooks a medium—a fake Russian princess—and although these things lead to farcical disaster, she rises above it and is on to the next fad like a hawk. Her dishonesty is spectacular, her vitality endless; and if Riseholme tears her to pieces and is deeply hurt when she inherits a small fortune and takes a house in London to conquer Society there with the same assurance, they long for her to return and, when she does, welcome her with joy. After all, Lucia may have made herself ridiculous but she has come back: she is Life.
Lucia’s bids for power in London lead to disasters far beyond the mishaps of Riseholme; but her resilience in intrigue grips us. At the center of the novels is Georgie—“Georgino mio“—and their close relationship is based on fascination—she needs his spite, he needs her deceits. Each is the other’s mirror. At one point a delightful opera singer almost snatches him because she can see Lucia as a joke; but this infidelity is nominal. When she shows signs of wanting to be cuddled in Le Touquet, he sheers off in terror and returns to Lucia, forgiven.
We see into the absurd shallows of Lucia’s emotional life in two of the central novels in the series. In Riseholme Lucia’s social battles are provincial, her artiness is distinctly non-metropolitan, where the medieval revival has become derisively passé and middle class: she had better try to “keep up.” If she is chasing titled notorieties and prime ministers she must drop the Daisy Quantocks who have only just got around to clock golf, and see what smart picture exhibitions, a top gossip writer, or a fashionable divorce case can teach her. The last is a revelation. We see the court scene through her silly mind:
Certainly, Babs Shyton, the lady whose husband wanted to get rid of her, had written very odd letters to Woof-dog, otherwise known as Lord Middlesex, and he to her…. But as the trial went on, Lucia found herself growing warm with sympathy for Babs…. Both Babs and he [Middlesex], in the extracts from the remarkable correspondence between them which were read out in court, alluded to Colonel Shyton as the S.P., which Babs (amid loud laughter) frankly confessed meant Stinkpot; and Babs had certainly written to Woof-dog to say that she was in bed and very sleepy and cross, but wished that Woof-dog was thumping his tail on the hearthrug…. As for the row of crosses [at the end of her letter], she explained frankly that they indicated she was cross…. Babs had produced an excellent impression, in fact; she had looked so pretty and had answered so gaily….
As for Woof-dog he was the strong silent Englishman, and when he was asked whether he had ever kissed Babs, replied:
“That’s a lie” in such a loud fierce voice that you felt that the jury had better believe him unless they all wanted to be knocked down.
Always a positive thinker, Lucia draws the correct moral: it is no good, it is abhorrent, to take a real lover. Even in marriage her bedroom door is locked and her husband is content. The important thing is to have the reputation of having a lover: it gives a woman cachet. In the ensuing folly we see her pursuing a gossip writer who, when he tumbles to her plot, is determined not to be made a fool of like that! Gossip writers don’t like gossip about themselves; it kills their trade and in any case he is a neuter not unlike “Georgino mio.”
Like so many of her enterprises the London venture is a series of disasters from which she recovers fast. Her husband dies of general neglect and a rather despicable inability to keep up with her. She chucks Riseholme and moves to Tilling—which is in fact Henry James’s Rye—to deal with a rival more formidable than Daisy Quantock and with lesbians tougher than the Riseholme set. The lady is Miss Mapp, a woman in her forties whose
…face was of high vivid color and corrugated by chronic rage and curiosity; but these vivifying emotions had preserved to her an astonishing activity of mind and body, which fully accounted for [her] comparative adolescence…. Anger and the gravest suspicions about everybody had kept her young and on the boil.
As a spy on what is going on she can read the significance in every woman’s shopping basket, every window lit or unlit, every motor that passes, what everyone eats, drinks, and thinks, what every woman has got on, on top and underneath. Every English village has its Miss Mapp. She intends to be mayoress of Tilling: Lucia has more hypocrisy and subtlety and beats her to it. And if admittedly this petticoat war is long drawn out it does lead to one splendid drama. Tilling (Rye), as everyone knows, is close to the sea marshes; it is liable to tidal floods. Miss Mapp is caught trying to steal a recipe in Lucia’s kitchen just as the sea wall carelessly breaks its bank and she and Lucia are carried into the Channel on an upturned kitchen table and vanish into the sea fog for several weeks. They are presumed drowned. There is even a memorial service. Georgie has erected a cenotaph and a plaque recording their deaths—Miss Mapp’s name is carved in smaller letters than Lucia’s! Of course the two rivals turn up looking very healthy: they have been rescued by fishermen and have been fed on disgusting cod. Each gives unflattering accounts of the other’s behavior on the raft and with the seamen, and gives rival public lectures on the subject. Bitching is the permanent incentive to Benson’s invention and his feline mind.
After the death of Lucia’s husband and despite Georgie’s total mistrust of Lucia, he marries her after an enthusiastic agreement that they will never go to bed together. They have that horror in common. It is noticeable that their affection declines at once, but their need for each other is increased. Miss Mapp marries the usual Colonel who, as she knows, is grossly after her money. But one must not be deceived into thinking that Benson hates the idiots he is writing about or suffers from Schadenfreude. Far from it, the sun of comedy shines on his pages; he adores his victims.
The period is surprisingly the post-1918 one, but that beastly war is not mentioned. Pockets of Edwardian manners survived long after that war, for inherited money is the great preserver of dead cultures. Many of his characters—notably minor ones like Lady Ambermere, a woman of slowly enunciated and grandiose rudeness—were in action fifty years ago. I can remember their accents and their syntax. And here lies part of Benson’s absurd spell: his ear for the dialogue of cliques is quick and devastating, for he understands the baby talk of fairyland which, of course, sex and our four letter words have destroyed. (Unless mass society’s own nonstop chatter about “fucking,” “screwing,” and the boys “having it off” is itself a new fairy tale jargon.) The minor catch phrases preserve their cracked notes. “How tarsome!” exclaims Georgie. “Au reservoir” spreads like measles in place of “au revoir.” There is a key to Benson’s wicked mind in the following passage between Lucia and “Georgino mio“:
“I domestichi are making salone ready.”
“Molto bene” [she said.]
“Everybody’s tummin’,” said Georgie, varying the cipher.
“Me so nervosa!” said Lucia. “Fancy me doing Brunnhilde before singing Brunnhilde. Me can’t bear it.”
The key word is “cipher.” Benson knew the cipher of all his characters. His pleasure was in the idiotic gabble of life. Is he too tepid for export? Years ago Gilbert Seldes compared Benson with the Sinclair Lewis of Main Street but pointed out that Lewis spoiled his book by his violent fury. Benson was never furious when he killed an age. He believed that love lasts longest when it is unkind.
June 23, 1977