ALICE McVEIGH

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E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia

My book club recently rejected my suggestion of this mini-masterpiece – lol – which got me thinking about just how much I love it. Next to P.G. Wodehouse – who challenges Mark Twain in the humour stakes – Benson is my never-failing, go-to, feel-good author. Even Austen, famous for her upbeat, wedding-flooded endings, has far more angst than he…

This is historical fiction so feather-light that it resembles a tiny prawn cracker, the kind that almost instantly melts to nothing on your tongue. The humour is gentle, the satire has just enough wit to bite.

Edwardian society had its stratas, and Mapp and Lucia in Tilling (based on Rye) stand at the crest of theirs, vying for social supremacy, with first one and then the other edging ahead… Each forty-something lady has their supporters and their unbelievers, their miniature crises and their quite major embarrassments – but almost nobody dies, the approach of WWI is not so much as hinted at… no, it’s all comfortably middle-aged, upper middle-class, entirely middle-England characters, with their little foibles, jealousies and weaknesses affectionately portrayed.

 Lucia holds the entire series of books together (there is also Lucia in London, sans Mapp, and the delicious early Lucia novels, before the move to Tilling – in these she has operatic divas and Daisy as her foils, instead). Effortlessly snobbish but still delightful, she pretends to speak fluent Italian and believes herself a great deal more pianistically accomplished than she actually is. Her admirer, the asexual Georgie (they eventually marry) is just as winning, and the portraits of Diva, Major Benjy, Quaint Irene etc. are so splendiferous that one can’t help suspecting that, in Rye at least, they once existed.

Rye – here called Tilling – itself seems almost a character: a seaside town of pre-war innocence, if occasionally subject to (real) sea tempests.

This is escapism in its purest sense, and, if there’s no real drama, the writing itself is a delight. Benson’s prose is effortless – his pacing perfect – his dialogue as pitch perfect as Austen’s. There’s not a false note anywhere. This is escapism but – really – sometimes there’s nothing better. Sink into a Lucia book and you’ll find, an hour later, that you’ve somehow scoffed every tiny prawn cracker – and you upturn the book itself, hoping for more.

Devoney Looser’s Sister Novelists

This non-fiction tour-de-force is as pacey as a novel – never a dull moment. A mesmerizing and impressively well-researched work which makes Georgian England spring to life.
In fact, as I read it, I kept thinking what a fantastic TV series it would make…

Here we have the tale of two lovely, dramatic, and gifted young Regency sisters – though disconcertingly poor – triumphing, despite being mostly taken for granted by men, whether the men concerned were rivals, publishers, potential suitors or even their own brothers. Both Jane and Maria expended no little energy keeping their brothers out of debtor’s prisons, while otherwise dodging the advances of older men, being manipulated by publishers, breaking hearts – or, having their own hearts either sprained or else broken.
In other words, in Devoney Looser’s Sister Novelists we’re gifted with an utterly believable glimpse into what living in Georgian times might have felt like – at least, if literary – rubbing shoulders with Byron and Scott (and royalty) while simultaneously, sometimes desperately, trying to keep up appearances.

The sisters are equally fascinating. Jane is a powerhouse: passionate, resourceful and resilient, holding the family together even when Edmund Keen – no less – deliberately chooses to shipwreck the premiere of her first play at Drury Lane. Maria – almost as gifted and much more prolific – emerges as rather more vulnerable and romantic, capable of falling for a young Guardsman on sight and – oh! the scandal! – even conducting a clandestine correspondence with him.

It is also Maria who suffers upon ending up, in hopes of assisting their brother, in a ‘nest of vipers’. This particular nest is dominated by a rich aristocrat who makes Lady Catherine de Bourgh look like a badge-laden Girl Scout – fomenting rumour, violating her houseguests’ private correspondence, and messing about with her underlings’ love lives. Not to mention the appalling Mrs Campbell, who attempts to blackmail Jane’s love, Henry, by threatening to besmirch Jane Porter’s own reputation – a blackmail he scorned.

At about two inches thick, this book is a massive achievement in every sense, but the pages just fly by. Austen lovers will relish such wicked subtleties as ‘Mrs Crespigny, handsome, clever, and rich, had been known to Jane and Maria for several years.’ And, ‘by eleven, he had delighted Mrs Porter long enough’ (!) Looser is mischievous – but also intensely serious. She makes a powerful case against the sexism that held back not only the Porters, but Austen and many other female novelists of the time.

To sum up, we have a elegantly written, beautifully presented book with:
1) a thrilling storyline
2) vivid characters – and they’re all real, as well!
3) meticulous research
4) silky prose
5) immaculate pacing
6) and as neat a summation of what it felt like, to be a supremely gifted member of London society without either a famous name or money, as could be contrived.

Sister Novelists is a TV series crying out to be made. It has the lot: the manipulative Margravine of Ansbach, the sensitive Maria, the passionate-but-less-impulsive Jane, not to mention all the men who pursue or annoy them. And we even have the dramas of the stage: the struggles to be ‘seen’ as women as equal artists to a man – and even a brush with plagiarism.

Whether Sir Walter Scott really acted as ‘vampire’ to Jane Porter’s own work for his Waverley series is not made entirely clear, but that the pair of sisters succeeded, by talent and guts alone, against all odds, is perfectly obvious. Even their own brothers cheated them, but their final image here is one of resilience – yes, and of triumph, too.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (with spoilers!)

I’m calling a near-miss on this one.

I’m glad that I read it (hooked by the start, lost interest in the middle, re-enrolled near the end)… However, I remain unconvinced.

TOO many coincidences. (Jude’s encountering Kennedy…whaaaat?). TOO many unlikelihoods. (Transgender was a thing, mid-twentieth century? … really?)

Nor could I imagine how the passive, undemanding Stella suddenly found the nerve to risk everything – and, decades ago, it would have been everything – by choosing to impersonate a White person. Or how Desiree – so much more the bolder – so comprehensively lost her nerve, returning to Mallard and to waitressing forevermore.

Admittedly, both twins had witnessed the horrific racist murder of their father: an almost unimaginably traumatising event. But to expect us to believe, after the rebellious Desiree’s being the one to insist that her twin Stella escape with her to the big city, that she would rush back herself to the small town she loathed – and remain – while the stolid Stella supposedly found sufficient nerve to impersonate a White person… It just failed to make sense. Would have been a much better book had the twins switched fates, imho.

Having involved us in the twins – with some excellent writing, no question – the author summarily dumps Desiree and her much-missed twin in favour of their daughters. Jude was believable… but Kennedy never was. I almost DNF (did not finish) at this point, with the coincidences and the jolt of losing sight of the main characters, but the end of the book provided some sense of closure.

In fact, I’m very glad I read it, thanks to its eye-opening perspectives about racism and race generally. I even believe it to be an important book but – especially for a writer of Bennett’s ability – still a near-miss.

ALICE McVEIGH

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