Watch out, friends and colleagues: I plan to start speaking like a true Tillingite, asking “Any news?” when I run into people, and replying with an astonished “No!” if they reveal something gossipy and exciting. My recent trip to Rye made me eager to reread E. F. Benson’s Make Way for Lucia series, and I’ve just finished the 6th volume, making this my fourth immersion in the world of Tilling.
This time around, I had the added joy of being able to visualize Rye as Benson’s famous town, with its cobbled streets, red-tiled roofs, church tower, and views of the Channel. The E. F. Benson Society has created a map of Tilling/Rye, showing known (and guessed) locations for the characters’ houses, which I kept at hand. So convenient for any Luciaphil.
Followers of this and my other blogs may have read my earlier posts about Lucia and Georgie and Elizabeth Mapp — I’ve written often about my admiration, but never anything extensive.
I chuckle as I consider assessing the literary value of Benson’s great opus, because I risk sounding just like Lucia at her most irritating — Miss Knows-Very-Little-But-Pretends-Expertise. Near the end of the 6th volume, Lucia wishes (but only secretly) that she could finally admit to ignorance of both Italian and music, but she can’t break the habit. It’s a complex game, where she pretends to be an expert and everyone knows she’s pretending — the pitfalls are predictable yet each time with just the right twist to surprise.
A basic outline of the series: In the 20s and 30s, two characters vie for social premiership of small-town England. The first volume, set in Riseholme, introduces us to Lucia — Mrs. Emmeline Lucas — handsome, clever, and rich (in fact, she could be a grown-up Emma Woodhouse, without Mr. Knightley to keep her in line) as well as conniving, pretentious, a name-dropper, and willing to work tirelessly to keep her star shining for her friends and the world at large to admire and envy. She’s also kind, generous, interested in everything, and protective of her closest friend, Mr. George Pillson.
We meet Lucia’s nemesis, Miss Elizabeth Mapp, in the third volume. Clever, greedy, malicious, curious and thoroughly in charge of her friends’ well-being, Mapp resides in Tilling. Without her perfect example and prodding, her friends would (she believes) quickly devolve into lazy drunkards, hopeless gossips, or (heavens!) socialists. When Lucia moves to Tilling, she challenges Mapp for the role of First Lady of the Town. From this point on, the two see-saw each other up and down, sometimes securing supremacy for themselves, but occasionally making such gaffes that the other is shot into the heights.
Favorite parts: Georgie’s “espaliered locks” (at first a comb-over, and then a toupée), and his dread of children, who are “so sticky, particularly after tea.” Tilling’s crooked chimney, which every painter exaggerates to make the crookedness look less like poor artistic skills. Diva’s tea-shop, Susan Wyse’s MBE and her husband’s bowing (even to paintings), Irene’s audacious artwork, and the Padre’s odd mixture of Scots, Middle and Modern English. Not to mention the Lobster à la Riseholme saga, which includes a flood and sea-rescue.
The Feydeau-like farce of volume 6, in which a crushed budgerigar and a silver-topped riding whip each disappear and reappear with regularity, shows off Benson’s plotting skills. Lucia cleverly handles Miss Mapp, but also makes colossal errors and loses face repeatedly. Yet (and this is what I most admire about her), she pulls herself up and never looks back, even when all have deserted her.
Henry James may have been Rye’s most celebrated literary denizen, but Benson made the town into a place of pilgrimage. Those who visit today come for Lucia and Mapp, walking the cobbled streets to stare at half-timbered or brick façades, climbing the church tower, checking teashop menus for Diva’s sardine tartlets, and imagining Benson’s characters popping in and out of doorways. As Lucia would say, “Such a treat for them all!”