British humor has its own identity – wry, genteel, steeped in sarcasm, slightly tongue-in-cheek. All writers have their own style but there is something inherently similar in the language and narrative. I always find similarities between Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and PG Wodehouse with their mostly country house settings, caricaturized protagonists and situational humor. I also tend to measure every other British humorist against them, which probably doesn’t help my reading at all, as it happened in the case of Miss Mapp by EF Benson
The ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels come highly recommended from all my blogging friends – I spied a free copy on Kindle and thought –‘ Why not?’. E.F. Benson was an early 20th century writer and is today mostly famous for this set of books. Miss Mapp is the third book in the series and is about the life of “high society” in the small British town of Tilling. The “High Society” comprises of a group of mostly middle aged women – Miss Mapp, her arch-nemesis Diva, the wannabe social climber Mrs Poppit, the local Padre and his mousy wife and the two retired military men – Captain Puffin and Major Flint.
As there isn’t much to do fill the long days, hours are spent planning bridge parties and trying to garner as much gossip as possible. Miss Mapp and Diva spend considerable time and energy to get the first piece of gossip and the latest fashionable dresses.
Miss Mapp, our heroine, is a forty something busy body who likes to believe that she represents the creme de la creme of Tilling. She is greatly feared for her inference skills that may put Sherlock Holmes to shame. Here is an example –
“Mrs. Plaistow turned the corner below Mrs.”Mapp’s window, and went bobbing down the steep hill…She distinctly looked into the Captain’s Puffin’s dining room window as she passed, and with misplaced juvenility so characteristic of her waggled her plump little hand at it. At the corner beyond Major Flint’s house she hesitated a moment, and turned off down the entry into the side street where Mr. Wyse lived. The dentist lived there, too, and as Mr. Wyse was away on the continent ofEurope, Mrs. Plaistow was almost certain to be visiting the other. Rapidly Miss Mapp remembered that at Mrs. Barlett’s bridge party yesterday Mrs. Plaistow had selected soft chocolates for consumption instead of those stuffed with nougat or almonds. That furnished additional evidence for the dentist, for you could not get a nougat chocolate at all if Godiva Plaistow had been in the room for more than a minute…”
The book is a series of comical situations that she lands up in as she constantly tries to put down other townsfolk – especially Mrs Poppit and Diva. She is also not above spying in people in the middle of the night to gather what they are up to. For Miss Mapp, must, without doubt know everything that goes in that town. It is quite clear from the attitude of the townspeople that Miss Mapp is more tolerated than liked and is often quite fodder for gossip herself.
What are more amusing than Miss Mapp’s attempts at finding information, are extreme and rather elaborate attempts of pretending not to care. It is a truly a wonder at what lengths will an idle but curious mind will go to keep itself occupied.
Benson is seriously funny and you do tend to chuckle quite a bit now and then. However, it’s not something that you have never read before. Which in itself is not a bad thing but it does not make me want to go and read out the next book in the series. I like all the characters, but I don’t care what happens to them next. And yes building empathy is not the goal of this kind of literature, but if I had to read something that for both the sake of literature and entertainment I will go back and pick up Wodehouse.
But dear reader, don’t go my opinion. I highly recommend giving the Mapp and Lucia books a try. I have just read one of them and I will eventually read the others for sure. Just not right away