“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” (Shirley Jackson)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that 2020 has been a big old pile of pants. Initially I felt guilty about seeking some escapism – it seemed to be another facet of privilege that escapism was available to me – but now I think if it keeps you sane, do whatever works to come out the other side (and I need to keep reminding myself that there will be the other side…) So here are two enjoyable, light comic novels that have helped me keep possession of my remaining marbles.

Firstly, Kate reminded me that the Lucia novels by EF Benson are perfect for this sort of read. Having read Queen Lucia back in April for the 1920 Club, I was keen to read the sequel Lucia in London (1927), especially as fans of Mapp and Lucia tell me the novels get better as they progress.

It opens with the death of Lucia’s aunt by marriage, who had been very unwell for many years and lived to a ripe old age. All things considered:

“it had been generally and perhaps reasonably hoped among his friends and those of his wife that the bereavement would not be regarded by either of them as an intolerable tragedy.”

But to do so would deny Lucia a chance at self-dramatisation, so of course she goes all out for grief. Her donning of black and a pained expression is wonderfully satirised by Benson, as are the social niceties of bereavement when no-one genuinely cares for the departed:

“Georgie held her hand a moment longer than was usual, and gave it a little extra pressure for the conveyance of sympathy. Lucia, to acknowledge that, pressed a little more, and Georgie tightened his grip again to show that he understood, until their respective finger-nails grew white with the conveyance and reception of sympathy. It was rather agonising, because a bit of skin on his little finger had got caught between two of the rings on his third finger, and he was glad when they quite understood each other.”

It soon becomes clear that Lucia plans to decamp to London, to the aunt’s very swish home, leaving Riseholme reeling. Georgie understands the impulse but is surprised that Lucia is quite so keen to leave:

“He wanted, ever so much, to have a little flat in London (or a couple of rooms would serve) just for a dip every now and then in the life which Lucia found so vapid. But he knew he wasn’t a strong, serious character like Lucia, whose only frivolities were artistic or Elizabethan.”

As readers we know that Lucia is entirely frivolous of course, and she throws herself into the contemporary London scene with gusto.

“What she wanted was the foam of the wave, the topmost, the most sunlit of the billows that rode the sea. Anything that had proved itself billowish was her game, and anything which showed signs of being a billow, even if it entailed a vegetarian lunch with cocktails and the possible necessity of being painted like the artist’s wife with an eyebrow in one corner of the picture and a substance like desiccated cauliflower in the centre.”

As a Londoner myself it struck me that nothing changes: 93 years on and the silliness of the fashionable London scene is still ripe for satirising. Benson pokes gentle fun, nobody is truly despicable or utterly destroyed. Personally I enjoyed the ongoing saga of Georgie’s Oxford bags, bought during “a moment of reckless sartorial courage”. Not everyone can carry off Oxford bags with the aplomb of Buster Keaton, after all:

Life at Riseholme continues at its usual pace – that is, a snail’s. It is a life they all enjoyed, one filled with enough little dramas and crises to keep them all amused. Now however, something is missing:

“Yet none of these things which, together with plenty of conversation and a little housekeeping and manicuring, had long made life such a busy and strenuous performance, seemed to offer an adequate stimulus. And he knew well enough what rendered them devoid of tonic: it was that Lucia was not here, and however much he told himself he did not want her, he like all the rest of Riseholme was beginning to miss her dreadfully. She aggravated and exasperated them: she was a hypocrite (all that pretence of not having read the Mozart duet, and desolation at Auntie’s death), a poseuse, a sham and a snob, but there was something about her that stirred you into violent though protesting activity, and though she might infuriate you, she prevented your being dull.”

Will Lucia make a splash in London? Will Riseholme find their way without her? Will she ever return? What do you think?

“Aren’t you feeling more Luciaphil? I’m sure you are. You must enjoy her: it shows such a want of humour to be annoyed with her.”

You can read Lucia in London online here.

Now a musical interlude, but one of which I’m certain Lucia would not remotely approve. You can’t get more London than Chas and Dave:

Secondly, Ali’s lovely post 10 vintage books of joy reminded me I had Something Light by Margery Sharp (1960) in the TBR, and so I dug it out forthwith. I adore Margery Sharp and her well-observed but gentle humour was just what I needed.

It opens “Louisa Mary Datchett was very fond of men.” Unfortunately for Louisa, this means she keeps running round after various wet blankets, helping them keep on track, buying them yogurt and mopping their brows. She’s getting older and her profession as a dog photographer only just keeps her afloat, so she decides she needs to get married.

“ ‘It’s not the suffragettes who’d be proud of me,’ thought Louisa bitterly, ‘it’s the Salvation Army. I may be the modern woman, the femme sole with all her rights, and I’m very fond of men, but it’s time I looked out for myself.  In fact it’s time I looked out for a rich husband, just as though I’d been born in a Victorian novel…’”

It’s a brilliant piece of characterisation that Louisa doesn’t come across as either a doormat or as mercenary. She’s a kind person, a wee bit lost, and trying to take the best decisions she can for a happy life.

We then follow Louisa’s various adventures trying to gain what she thinks she wants. She spends a week trying to secure a rich husband, another seven days rekindling an adolescent devotion and a further week acting as a housekeeper for a man whose ready-made family are appealing.

That’s pretty much it, plot-wise and there are no real surprises. In no way is this a criticism. A comfort read for me has a nice predictability to it and I enjoy watching things play out as I expect in an entertaining way.

What further makes this such an enjoyable read are the fond portraits of the various characters, and the little details. One suitor is frequently likened to a Sealyham terrier; bamboo framed spectacles are given far too much importance; Louisa wears a “rowdy housecoat, zebras on a pink ground”; the milkman is a constant source of sympathetic wisdom as well as dairy products; Louisa has to try and sell ugly beechnut jewellery on behalf of her Bohemian artist neighbour. Everyone is flawed, believably human, gently ribbed by the author. It’s an absolute delight.

“She was constantly being either sent for, like a fire engine, or dispatched, like a lifeboat, to the scene of some masculine disaster”

To end, an 80s pop classic as always, but presented in a lip sync scene of sibling bonding that makes me smile, and we all need things that make us smile right now:

23 thoughts on ““No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” (Shirley Jackson)

  1. 2020 has been totally pants, and I think comfort reading is just what you should go for if you need it. I’ve certainly found books to be a real source of solace. As for the Mapp and Lucias – what a joy they are! I hope you continue on your journey through them because when Mapp arrives things become even more wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vintage crime has been my comfort reading – nice, tidy murders of unpleasant people always cheer me up! I’m sure this time next year we’ll all be crowded together in places looking back nostalgically at the days of our splendid isolation… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m all for comfort reading, especially when the world outside feels so stressful. The Margery Sharp sounds absolutely delightful with a comforting familiarity to the style and storyline. So glad to hear you enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. These sound brilliant. I’ve got but never read E. F. Benson. Lucia reminds me of my Great Aunt Kitty. She was terrifying and very funny but never ever dull. A great blurter of anything that was on her mind. My first memory of her is her accosting my mother, pointing at me and saying ‘That child needs a haircut.’ Most likely true but I hear her words, not the child bit but the haircut bit, ringing in my ears most mornings when I look in the mirror!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This post sent me down so many rabbit holes. First, I went to see what “Oxford bags” were, and now I feel silly for not knowing. I found this great article, btw… https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/oxford-bags-pants
    Watch for the dance video by Northern Soul near the end!
    Then, because I love that song in the lip sync clip so much and haven’t heard it for so long, I had to listen to it more than once. And then I was curious about the movie it was in – I’ve never heard of it – so I looked that up, too. It looks emotional! Have you seen it? (And then I googled the actors.)

    Both of these books sound good, particularly the Sharp. (And now I’ve looked that up, too, and our library doesn’t have it. The only one we have in the whole province is The Nutmeg Tree. These things are good to know!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Naomi your comment brought me so much joy! I’m very happy to send people down rabbit holes 🙂 That Oxford bags article is really interesting, thank you! Great video of the Northern soul dancers.

      I really like Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader and yet somehow The Skeleton Twins completely passed me by. I couldn’t find it to stream on my services so I’ve gone old school and ordered the DVD, I hope it lives up to that one clip…

      Sharp is wonderful but her books are hard to find although there have been some Kindle editions. Given my DVD comment it won’t surprise you that I’m not an ebook reader so I try and hunt them down secondhand. I’ve not read The Nutmeg Tree yet but I hear good things so might be worth an inter-library loan if its available 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Shame on me for still not having read any Sharp (I almost managed – had a book from the library but had to return it before I could start).
    I have found myself gravitating toward very light books – currently reading a silly, fun satire, and it’s about all I can focus on.
    I see that last clip is from The Skelton Twins… hmmmm… not a movie I’ve seen but obviously one I’d like.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No shame, you can’t read everything but Sharp is so much fun, I hope you manage to find time one day!

      Silly fun satire sounds just the thing! I’ll look forward to your review 🙂

      I’ve not seen the film either but I want to remedy this because like you I think I’d enjoy it. It’s my viewing plan for the weekend…


  7. Oh, oh, oh! I just read that Margery Sharp book during lockdown too. I found it second-hand a couple of years ago and the first sentence made me laugh so I had to bring it home. While I wouldn’t exactly say it’s subversive, I did think that machinations and high-spirited pursuit put her in a rather ambitious league of her won. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: “Light tomorrow with today!” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) | madame bibi lophile recommends

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