In the introduction to the Knopf's Everyman Library edition of Sanditon and Other Stories (a collection of Jane Austen's juvenilia, fragments, and one complete epistolary novel), Peter Washington writes of Miss Austen's relatively new status as a major author -- one whose works have launched a thousand academically pretentious and dubiously premised critical theses. He writes of readers such as I, "Dismayed by this assault, many old Janeites have staged a tactical retreat, instinctively turning for comfort to writers more likely to withstand academic appropriation -- Wodehouse, Angela Thirkell, E.F. Benson. Benson is an interesting case, because he now has the status Austen used to enjoy. He was a fine novelist with greater depths than one might suspect . . . but he is rightly favoured for his light touch, his dry humour, his caricatures, his lucid, lambent style, his old-maidishness, all the features that once belonged to 'Miss' Austen." Oh heck yeah! Mr. Washington had me at "light touch and dry humour." I already knew I loved P.G. Wodehouse; now I had two more authors to discover. E.F. Benson came first.
Do yourself a favour*: Read Benson's six novels that make up the Mapp & Lucia series. Oh, they are so very, very good for whatever ails you. The first book I read (and I was lucky to have figured out how to read them in order, which is the best way) was Queen Lucia. At first I was puzzled, as I did not really like the main character and was unsure how to view her going forward. Then, all of a sudden, it hit me smack in the gob, and I was a confirmed Luciaphile in a heartbeat. Someone once, erroneously in my opinion, described Miss Austen's books as "exercises in regulated hatred." They missed the fun, the sheer comic brilliance, of a master craftswoman who can laugh at "follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies" without ever losing that essential benevolence. E.F. Benson is even easier to catch in the humour of it all, because his characters are so bald in their ambitions and transparent in their snobberies. Everyone in the books knows what everyone else is up to, and watching these refined middle-class British suburbanites plot and scheme and maneuver is like watching a chess match between two masters with nothing important at stake other than prestige and eclat.
Lucia's Progress finds Lucia and Elizabeth Mapp at it again in Tilling -- that town by the sea. If you do not know the characters, there is not much to tell you about them, other than that each disguises a near blood lust for the other's throat beneath a veneer of chilly, sarcastic civility that is utterly diverting. [spoiler] The twisting and turning plot finishes up with Elizabeth put down quite soundly and Lucia rising to prominence as Mayor of Tilling. Ta-da!
I took a break from E.F. Benson to read a type of book I generally like: The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson. I haven't much to say about this one, other than that it was interesting enough for a pleasure read, but not as wittily written as I've come to expect from British writers. Maybe I was too full of Benson yet to appreciate the two Johns fully. But, I learned just enough about various characters who are currently dead but were once very much alive doing interesting things. They grouped these dead into categories that might have surprised the subjects in their living years. For instance, Freud, DaVinci and Byron had "bad starts in life." Some people were grouped as monkey-keepers. Other for their sexual proclivities. All in all, a good beach read.
But, it was soon back to Lucia & Mapp, this time for the final novel of the series, Trouble for Lucia. Remember, you're still under spoiler alert. Lucia is mayor of Tilling and appoints Elizabeth Mapp as her mayoress, just to keep her out of Lucia's hair. And everything goes swimmingly for the new mayor, as her sworn-but-never-stated enemy Elizabeth grinds her (fake) teeth in frustration. Hijinks ensue; prestige is won and lost by all; and it looks in the end as though Lucia may finally get her come-uppance and see Elizabeth Mapp triumph once and for all. Does she? I'll leave that spoiler out. With one sigh of regret and another of satisfaction, I lay aside this final volume with a final "Au reservoir" to my beloved Tilling-and-Riseholme-ites. I should think I'll be ready to read the lot again within a year or two. They are definitely akin to Miss Austen in their re-readability as well as their immense fun.
* the extra 'u' in favour is to honour my beloved Brits; the extra 'u' in honour was for consistency