PUBLISHED: 05:46 12 January 2015
The merciless comedy of E F Benson's Mapp and Lucia novels comes to the BBC this winter. Paul Barnes reveals the Norfolk story behind the man and his work.
His best-selling stories of the struggles for provincial social supremacy in the 1920s brought delight to a generation of readers – among them some big name fans. It was Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Nancy Mitford and W H Auden who all declared, “We will pay anything for Lucia books”.
E F Benson appropriated for his fiction his home town of Rye in Sussex, where he lived from 1918 until his death in 1940. He called it Tilling, and his Mapp and Lucia novels brought him fame and a comfortable living there. Elizabeth Mapp was a devious, condescending, middle-aged spinster; her challenger, Lucia, was Emmeline Lucas, a shrewd, wealthy, middle-aged widow.
This winter, the characters will be brought to life again in a new production on the BBC, starring Miranda Richardson as Mapp and Anna Chancellor as Lucia; a sumptuous affair with fine frocks and glorious motor cars, with a script written by Steve Pemberton who also plays Georgie Pillson in this TV adaptation.
But it wasn’t just Rye that Benson loved – he often stayed at our own Overstrand, near Cromer. And it was here that Amy Ames – the central figure in Mrs Ames, written by Benson in 1912, eight years before the first of the Lucia novels appeared – took a break too. Amy could have been the template for Miss Mapp, indeed, the whole book could be a blueprint for the Mapp and Lucia stories. Amy’s social standing in her small town is challenged by Millie Evans, who is not only ambitious but also younger. Bent on rejuvenation, Amy heads to the coast with, in her luggage, a jar of skin food guaranteed to banish wrinkles. It’s applied daily to her face and neck which are then palpitated by means of “a machine, that, when you turned a handle, quivered violently like a motor car that is prepared to start”. Combined with bracing walks and paddling, the treatment appears to work. She feels, and believes she looks, years younger.
Benson enjoyed what he called “a colony of friends” at Overstrand, any of whom could populate his fiction. He stayed at the home of Lord Battersea, formerly Cyril Flower MP, who took his title from that bit of London south of the river where he built several mansion blocks of flats in the 1890s. His wife Constance, “plain and stout and infinitely amiable”, adored him, addressing him as “lovie” or “duckie”. Their Overstrand house was The Pleasaunce, an early work of the young Edwin Lutyens.
Benson’s frequent golfing partner at Overstrand was Dr Edward Lyttelton, headmaster of Eton, and great uncle of jazz trumpeter Humphrey. Occasional dinner-guests at The Pleasaunce were Sir Edgar and Lady Speyer who popped across from their house nearby, called Sea Marge. Lady Speyer was a fine violinist and would sometimes bring her Stradivarius to play for their supper. In 1914 Edgar Speyer’s business connections with Germany were treated with suspicion. It was even rumoured that he crouched in the garden of Sea Marge with a torch, signalling to German submarines. Ostracised by former friends and vilified in the press, the Speyers were forced to leave for the United States. “Never was there so silly and tragic a business as their flight,” wrote Benson.
When Lord Battersea died he left, according to Benson, “a mountain of debts”. The love and admiration of Lady Constance was undiminished. “You can’t judge dearest Cyril as you would judge anybody else,” she said. “He was a genius.”
In the 1930s The Pleasaunce became a Christian holiday home, where all denominations continue to turn up seeking a spot of spiritual battery-charging. It still holds some relics of the Batterseas’ days, a couple of large Venetian lamps, a hefty Moroccan door, and some charming decorative shutter hinges by Lutyens. Sea Marge is Grade Two listed and now a hotel.