Meet Mapp and Lucia—two of the most unpleasant, disgraceful women you're ever likely to encounter, in E.F. Benson's carefully observed tale of 1930s village life and social ranking
Emmeline Lucas (known as Lucia to her friends) is emerging from mourning following the death of her husband. Pretentious, snobbish, and down-right devious, she feels her hometown of Riseholme offers no challenges and decides to vacation in the town of Tilling. She rents "Mallards" from Miss Mapp. The two women clash immediately. Miss Mapp is used to being top of the social ranking in Tilling, and there is no way she is going to let a vulgar outsider claim her position. So begins a battle of one-upmanship, peppered with queenly airs, ghastly tea parties, and unnerving bridge evenings as the two combatants attempt to out-do each other to win social supremacy. The pompous Lucia and malignant Mapp are characters you will love to hate, wonderfully penned by E.F. Benson. Darkly comic and witty, it is soon to be a new BBC series written by Steve Pemberton.
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Mapp & Lucia
By E.F. Benson
Hesperus Press LimitedCopyright © 2014 Hesperus Press Limited
All rights reserved.
Though it was nearly a year since her husband's death, Emmeline Lucas (universally known to her friends as Lucia) still wore the deepest and most uncompromising mourning. Black certainly suited her very well, but that had nothing to do with this continued use of it, whatever anybody said. Pepino and she had been the most devoted couple for over twenty-five years, and her grief at his loss was heartfelt: she missed him constantly and keenly. But months ago now, she, with her very vital and active personality, had felt a most natural craving to immerse herself again in all those thrilling interests which made life at this Elizabethan village of Riseholme so exciting a business, and she had not yet been able to make up her mind to take the plunge she longed for. Though she had not made a luxury out of the tokens of grief, she had perhaps made, ever so slightly, a stunt of them.
For instance. There was that bookshop on the green, 'Ye Signe of ye Daffodille', under the imprint of which Pepino had published his severely limited edition of Fugitive Lyrics and Pensieri Persi. A full six months after his death Lucia had been walking past it with Georgie Pillson, and had seen in the window a book she would have liked to purchase. But next to it, on the shelf, was the thin volume of Pepino's Pensieri Persi, and, frankly, it had been rather stuntish of her to falter on the threshold and, with eyes that were doing their best to swim, to say to Georgie:
'I can't quite face going in, Georgie. Weak of me, I know, but there it is. Will you please just pop in, caro, and ask them to send me Beethoven's Days of Boyhood? I will stroll on.'
So Georgie had pressed her hand and done this errand for her, and of course he had repeated this pathetic little incident to others. Tasteful embroideries had been tacked on to it, and it was soon known all over Riseholme that poor Lucia had gone into 'Ye Signe of ye Daffodille' to buy the book about Beethoven's boyhood, and had been so sadly affected by the sight of Pepino's poems in their rough brown linen cover with dark green tape to tie them up with (although she constantly saw the same volume in her own house), that she had quite broken down. Some said that sal volatile had been administered.
Similarly, she had never been able to bring herself to have a game of golf, or to resume her Dante readings, and having thus established the impression that her life had been completely smashed up it had been hard to decide that on Tuesday or Wednesday next she would begin to glue it together again. In consequence she had remained in as many pieces as before. Like a sensible woman she was very careful of her physical health, and since this stunt of mourning made it impossible for her to play golf or take brisk walks, she sent for a very illuminating little book, called An Ideal System of Callisthenics for those no longer Young, and in a secluded glade of her garden she exposed as much of herself as was proper to the invigorating action of the sun, when there was any, and had long bouts of skipping, and kicked, and jerked, and swayed her trunk, gracefully and vigorously, in accordance with the instructions laid down. The effect was most satisfactory, and at the very, very back of her mind she conceived it possible that some day she might conduct callisthenic classes for those ladies of Riseholme who were no longer young.
Then there was the greater matter of the Elizabethan fête to be held in August next, when Riseholme would be swarming with tourists. The idea of it had been entirely Lucia's, and there had been several meetings of the fête committee (of which, naturally, she was President) before Pepino's death. She had planned the great scene in it: this was to be Queen Elizabeth's visit to the Golden Hind, when, on the completion of Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the world, Her Majesty went to dine with him on board his ship at Deptford and knighted him. The Golden Hind was to be moored in the pond on the village green; or, more accurately, a platform on piles was to be built there, in the shape of a ship's deck, with masts and rudder and cannons and bulwarks, and banners and ancients, particularly ancients. The pond would be an admirable stage, for rows of benches would be put up all round it, and everybody would see beautifully. The Queen's procession with trumpeters and men-at-arms and ladies of the Court was planned to start from the Hurst, which was Lucia's house, and make its glittering and melodious way across the green to Deptford to the sound of madrigals and medieval marches. Lucia would impersonate the Queen, Pepino following her as Raleigh, and Georgie would be Francis Drake. But at an early stage of these incubations Pepino had died, and Lucia had involved herself in this inextricable widowhood. Since then the reins of government had fallen into Daisy Quantock's podgy little hands, and she, in this as in all other matters, had come to consider herself quite the Queen of Riseholme, until Lucia could get a move on again and teach her better.
One morning in June, some seven weeks before the date fixed for the fête, Mrs Quantock telephoned from her house a hundred yards away to say that she particularly wanted to see Lucia, if she might pop over for a little talk. Lucia had heard nothing lately about the preparations for the fête, for the last time that it had been mentioned in her presence, she had gulped and sat with her hand over her eyes for a moment overcome with the memory of how gaily she had planned it. But she knew that the preparations for it must by this time be well in hand, and now she instantly guessed that it was on this subject that Daisy wanted to see her. She had premonitions of that kind sometimes, and she was sure that this was one of them. Probably Daisy wanted to address a moving appeal to her that, for the sake of Riseholme generally, she should make this fête the occasion of her emerging from her hermetic widowhood. The idea recommended itself to Lucia, for before the date fixed for it, she would have been a widow for over a year, and she reflected that her dear Pepino would never have wished her to make this permanent suttee of herself: also there was the prestige of Riseholme to be considered. Besides, she was really itching to get back into the saddle again, and depose Daisy from her awkward, clumsy seat there, and this would be an admirable opportunity. So, as was usual now with her, she first sighed into the telephone, said rather faintly that she would be delighted to see dear Daisy, and then sighed again. Daisy, very stupidly, hoped she had not got a cough, and was reassured on that point.
Lucia gave a few moments' thought as to whether she would be found at the piano, playing the funeral march from Beethoven's Sonata in A flat which she now knew by heart, or be sitting out in Perdita's garden, reading Pepino's poems. She decided on the latter, and putting on a shady straw hat with a crêpe bow on it, and taking a copy of the poems from the shelf, hurried out into Perdita's garden. She also carried with her a copy of today's Times, which she had not yet read.
Perdita's garden requires a few words of explanation. It was a charming little square plot in front of the timbered façade of the Hurst, surrounded by yew hedges and intersected with paths of crazy pavement, carefully smothered in stone-crop, which led to the Elizabethan sundial from Wardour Street in the centre. It was gay in spring with those flowers (and no others) on which Perdita doted. There were 'violets dim', and primroses and daffodils, which came before the swallow dared and took the winds (usually of April) with beauty. But now in June the swallow had dared long ago, and when spring and the daffodils were over, Lucia always allowed Perdita's garden a wider, though still strictly Shakespearian scope. There was eglantine (Penzance briar) in full flower now, and honeysuckle and gillyflowers and plenty of pansies for thoughts, and yards of rue (more than usual this year), and so Perdita's garden was gay all the summer.
Here then, this morning, Lucia seated herself by the sundial, all in black, on a stone bench on which was carved the motto 'Come thou north wind, and blow thou south, that my garden spices may flow forth.' Sitting there with Pepino's poems and The Times she obscured about one-third of this text, and fat little Daisy would obscure the rest ... It was rather annoying that the tapes which tied the covers of Pepino's poems had got into a hard knot, which she was quite unable to unravel, for she had meant that Daisy should come up, unheard by her, in her absorption, and find her reading Pepino's lyric called 'Loneliness'. But she could not untie the tapes, and as soon as she heard Daisy's footsteps she became lost in reverie with the book lying shut on her lap, and the famous faraway look in her eyes.
It was a very hot morning. Daisy, like many middle-aged women who enjoyed perfect health, was always practising some medical regime of a hygienic nature, and just now she was a devoted slave to the eliminative processes of the body. The pores of the skin were the most important of these agencies, and, after her drill of physical jerks by the open window of her bedroom, she had trotted in all this heat across the green to keep up the elimination. She mopped and panted for a little.
'Made quite a new woman of me,' she said. 'You should try it, dear Lucia. But so good of you to see me, and I'll come to the point at once. The Elizabethan fête, you know. You see it won't be till August. Can't we persuade you, as they say, to come amongst us again? We all want you: such a fillip you'd give it.'
Lucia made no doubt that this request implied the hope that she might be induced to take the part of Queen Elizabeth, and under the spell of the exuberant sunshine that poured in upon Perdita's garden, she felt the thrill and the pulse of life bound in her veins. The fête would be an admirable occasion for entering the arena of activities again, and, as Daisy had hinted (delicately for Daisy), more than a year of her widowhood would have elapsed by August. It was self-sacrificing, too, of Daisy to have suggested this herself, for she knew that according to present arrangements Daisy was to take the part of the Virgin Queen, and Georgie had told her weeks ago (when the subject of the fête had been last alluded to) that she was already busy pricking her fingers by sewing a ruff to go round her fat little neck, and that she had bought a most sumptuous string of Woolworth pearls. Perhaps dear Daisy had realised what a very ridiculous figure she would present as Queen, and was anxious for the sake of the fête to retire from so laughable a role. But, however that might be, it was nice of her to volunteer abdication.
Lucia felt that it was only proper that Daisy should press her a little. She was being asked to sacrifice her personal feelings which so recoiled from publicity, and for the sake of Riseholme to rescue the fête from being a farce. She was most eager to do so, and a very little pressing would be sufficient. So she sighed again, she stroked the cover of Pepino's poems, but she spoke quite briskly.
'Dear Daisy,' she said, 'I don't think I could face it. I cannot imagine myself coming out of my house in silks and jewels to take my place in the procession without my Pepino. He was to have been Raleigh, you remember, and to have walked immediately behind me. The welcome, the shouting, the rejoicing, the madrigals, the Morris dances and me with my poor desolate heart! But perhaps I ought to make an effort. My dear Pepino, I know, would have wished me to. You think so, too, and I have always respected the soundness of your judgment.'
A slight change came over Daisy's round red face. Lucia was getting on rather too fast and too far.
'My dear, none of us ever thought of asking you to be Queen Elizabeth,' she said. 'We are not so unsympathetic, for of course that would be far too great a strain on you. You must not think of it. All that I was going to suggest was that you might take the part of Drake's wife. She only comes forward just for a moment, and makes her curtsey to me – I mean to the Queen – and then walks backwards again into the chorus of ladies-in-waiting and halberdiers and things.'
Lucia's beady eyes dwelt for a moment on Daisy's rather anxious face with a glance of singular disdain. What a fool poor Daisy was to think that she, Lucia, could possibly consent to take any subordinate part in tableaux or processions or anything else at Riseholme where she had been Queen so long! She had decided in her own mind that with a very little judicious pressing she would take the part of the Queen, and thus make her superb entry into Riseholme life again, but all the pressure in the world would not induce her to impersonate anyone else, unless she could double it with the Queen. Was there ever anything so tactless as Daisy's tact? ...
She gave a wintry smile, and stroked the cover of Pepino's poems again.
'Sweet of you to suggest it, dear,' she said, 'but indeed it would be quite too much for me. I was wrong to entertain the idea even for a moment. Naturally I shall take the greatest, the very greatest interest in it all, and I am sure you will understand if I do not even feel equal to coming to it, and read about it instead in the Worcestershire Herald.'
She paused. Perhaps it would be more in keeping with her empty heart to say nothing more about the fête. On the other hand, she felt a devouring curiosity to know how they were getting on. She sighed.
'I must begin to interest myself in things again,' she said. 'So tell me about it all, Daisy, if you would like to.'
Daisy was much relieved to know that even the part of Drake's wife was too much for Lucia. She was safe now from any risk of having the far more arduous part of the Queen snatched from her.
'All going splendidly,' she said. 'Revels on the green to open with, and madrigals and Morris dances. Then comes the scene on the Golden Hind which was entirely your idea. We've only elaborated it a little. There will be a fire on the poop of the ship, or is it the prow?'
'It depends, dear, which end of the ship you mean,' said Lucia.
'The behind part, the stern. Poop, is it? Well, there will be a fire on the poop for cooking. Quite safe, they say, if the logs are laid on a sheet of iron. Over the fire we shall have an Elizabethan spit, and roast a sheep on it.'
'I wouldn't,' said Lucia, feeling the glamour of these schemes glowing in her. 'Half of it will be cinders and the rest blood.'
'No, dear,' said Daisy. 'It will really be roasted first at the Ambermere Arms, and then just hung over the fire on the Golden Hind.'
'Oh, yes: just to get a little kippered in the smoke,' said Lucia.
'Not to matter. Of course I shan't really eat any, because I never touch meat of any sort now: I shall only pretend to. But there'll be the scene of cooking going on for the Queen's dinner on the deck of the Golden Hind, just to fill up, while the Queen's procession is forming. Oh, I wonder if you would let us start the procession from your house rather than mine. The route would be so much more in the open: everyone will see it better. I would come across to dress, if you would let me, half an hour before.'
Lucia of course knew perfectly well that Daisy was to be the Queen, but she wanted to make her say so.
'Certainly start from here,' said Lucia. 'I am only too happy to help. And dress here yourself. Let me see: what are you going to be?'
'They've all insisted that I should be Queen Elizabeth,' said Daisy hurriedly. 'Where had we got to? Oh yes: as the procession is forming, the cooking will be going on. Songs of course, a chorus of cooks. Then the procession will cross the green to the Golden Hind, then dinner, and then I knight Drake. Such a lovely sword. Then Elizabethan games, running, jumping, wrestling and so on. We thought of baiting a bear, one out of some menagerie that could be trusted not to get angry, but we've given that up. If it didn't get angry, it wouldn't be baited, and if it did get angry, it would be awful.'
'Very prudent,' said Lucia.
'Then I steal away into the Ambermere Arms which is quite close, and change into a riding-dress. There'll be a white palfrey at the door, the one that draws the milk-cart. Oh, I forgot. While I'm dressing, before the palfrey comes round, a rider gallops in from Plymouth on a horse covered with soapsuds to say that the Spanish Armada has been sighted. I think we must have a megaphone for that, or no one will hear. So I come out, and mount my palfrey, and make my speech to my troops at Tilbury. A large board, you know, with Tilbury written up on it like a station. That's quite in the Shakespearian style. I shall have to learn it all by heart, and just have Raleigh standing by the palfrey with a copy of my speech to prompt me if I forget.'
Excerpted from Mapp & Lucia by E.F. Benson. Copyright © 2014 Hesperus Press Limited. Excerpted by permission of Hesperus Press Limited.
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