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queen lucia

5 January 2006

My travel reading on a recent trip to England was E.F. Benson's 1920 novel Queen Lucia, the first in Benson's series of novels that would, much later, become famous as a television series starring Geraldine McEwan, Prunella Scales, and Nigel Hawthorne. I remember the TV series as cartoonish, though funny, caricature of provincial manners. Yet the novels have an intense fandom that goes much deeper than the momentary appeal of a Masterpiece Theatre entry. Reading Queen Lucia, I start to understand why.

Queen Lucia is set in the culturally arid village of Riseholme, where the independently wealthy "Lucia" and her husband "Peppino" preside over a minuscule, wholly pretentious social universe. Lucia pretends to be too tasteful to play piano pieces she's unable to play. She pretends to read Shakespeare and to speak Italian. Through sheer effrontery, Lucia has captivated the rest of the middle-class and minor gentry of Riseholme, who are even more ignorant and gullible than she is.

Lucia's main rival for social pre-eminence in Riseholme is Daisy Quantock, who makes her half-hearted sallies against Lucia from a position of utter credulity. Mrs. Quantock takes in a talkative short-order cook, believing him to be a yoga master; Mrs. Quantock meets a grifter in a vegetarian restaurant and is soon paying her a guinea per session to hold phony seances.

Lucia disdains London, and has convinced her entourage that London is culturally inferior to Riseholme. By extension, you would predict that Queen Lucia is a satire on the provinces, from the perspective of urbane superiority. But E.F. Benson's characters are not exactly the idiots one might meet in a novel by P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh. Lucia and her circle are inept, clueless, overweening, and capable of bitter embarrassment when their social and intellectual shortcomings are revealed. Benson can be contemptuous of them. But they are not essentially contemptible – and therein lies the resilient appeal of Benson's work.

The best example is Georgie Pillson, Lucia's prime lieutenant, who becomes the reflector-character for much of the action of Queen Lucia. Georgie is as pretentious as his patroness, as gauche as Mrs. Quantock, as repressed sexually and emotionally as, perhaps, E. F. Benson himself. Georgie keeps a case of bibelots that he has acquired at junk shops and pretends to have inherited from ancestors he does not possess. Yet his gaucheries and his pretensions matter intensely to him. They are not merely fodder for the scorn of the cultural center.

For all his humor, Benson is ultimately closer in tone to Jane Austen than to Wodehouse. He gives us characters that we care about despite their shortcomings. This is a great virtue, because really, in a world as vast and diverse as ours, who isn't a Georgie or a Lucia most of the time? Even the best-credentialled and most intensively educated of us have, ultimately, only a thing or two we know well (as the denizens of Riseholme know their social circle and its foibles intimately). The rest of the time, we face the ocean of culture around us, with all its shoals of prestige or tackiness, with very uncertain charts and little enough lore.

Austen is perhaps too Olympian a comparison. The book that Queen Lucia actually reminds me most of is George & Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody (1888-89), the comic but deeply sympathetic portrait of a marginally middle-class clerk, Charles Pooter, who strives haplessly but irrepressibly against the sheer task of living in a society marked by infinitely complex displays of a savoir faire he will never achieve. I don't laugh at Pooter or Lucia because I know better than they do; I laugh at them because they're me.

Benson, E.F. Queen Lucia. 1920. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1998.