Benson wrote a series of satirical novels in the late nineteenth century that featured two formidable social leaders, Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas, the crown jewel of which was republished in 2000 as part of the Prion Humor Classics series. Ms. Lucas, known as Lucia by her friends due to her fondness for sprinkling her speech with Italian phrases, is just emerging from mourning for her husband when the novel opens. Newly widowed, she had given up the social reins of Riseholme, and Benson traces her skillful negotiation of her re-entry into society in the novel’s opening act. Seeking a change of scenery, Lucia latches onto the plan to rent a home in Tilling, Mallards, for the summer. Her friend and piano partner, Georgie, joins her and some hilarity ensues as both realize with horror that they are now free to marry. Elizabeth Mapp rules the social scene of Tilling and it’s her home that Lucia rents, which sets in motion a series of rentals in the town that allow several women a change of scenery and extra income while not having to leave town. Benson paints small-town life with great skill and the small affronts and duels are as true to life in 2012 as they were in the 1890s when this was written. A case in point is the cutesy use of “au reservoir” among those in the know. The least masculine of the male characters, Georgie, who collects bibelots and does needlework, is the most fully developed. This is a world ruled by estrogen, but estrogen in battle rather than a nurturing Victorian vision of womanhood. The highlight of the battle between the two social queens comes when they float out to sea on a kitchen table, which is featured on the Prion cover. Once again we see a modern heroine in Lucia, who makes the best of her months at sea, learning to sail, tie knots, and walk barefoot on board ship while Mapp moans and groans with seasickness in her bunk.
Ah, for the nineteenth-century eye for humanity.