“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:

“You are a lost generation.” (Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway, 1920)

Miracle of miracles, I have managed to join in with the 1920 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. My reading capacity is still not great due to all that’s happening in the world and my work remains manic, so I thought I might not make it, but here we go on it’s final day: a hastily written and fairly incoherent contribution from me 😊

Firstly, Queen Lucia by EF Benson, the first in his hugely popular Mapp and Lucia series. Back when we were allowed in bookshops, I’d picked up a lovely box set of the first three novels from my favourite charity bookshop so I’m glad the 1920 Club gave me an incentive to get started.

We meet Emmeline Lucas arriving back in her home of Riseholme from London, and deciding to send her fly on ahead with her luggage, in order to cause a stir amongst her neighbours:

“dramatic instincts that formed so large a part of her mentality, and made her always take by right divine, the leading part in the histrionic entertainments with which the cultured of Riseholme beguiled, or rather strenuously occupied, such moments that could be spared from their studies of art and literature, and their social engagements.”

Immediately we know all we need to know: nothing happens in Riseholme, and Lucia is the centre of nothing happening.

“Mrs Lucas amused herself, in the intervals of her pursuit of Art for Art’s sake, with being not only an ambassador but a monarch…Mrs Lucas, busy and serene, worked harder than any of subjects, and exercised control that was both popular and autocratic.”

Lucia is an unmitigated snob with pretensions of cultured appreciation: she is called Lucia in deference to her constantly peppering her talk with Italian phrases, a language she doesn’t speak; she names the rooms in her house after Shakespeare plays; she visibly winces at what she perceives to be poorly played music, in order to demonstrate her delicate sensibilities to her audience.

Lucia is of course, completely clueless. She is bourgeois and has no appreciation of art except in using it to structure her own artifice for the other equally clueless inhabitants of Riseholme. Her neighbours are both in thrall to her and object to her unchallenged reign. Georgie is her BFF  who resents and adores Lucia (Benson can’t say he’s gay but devotes a good paragraph to explaining why there is no romantic interest between them); Mrs Daisy Quantock her frenemy and rival for being the epicentre of whatever the next Big Thing in Riseholme will be.

“the hours of the morning between breakfast and lunch were the times which the inhabitants of Riseholme chiefly devoted to spying on each other. They went about from shop to shop on household business, occasionally making purchases which they carried away with them in little paper parcels with convenient loops of string, but the real object of those excursions was to see what everybody else was doing, and learn what fresh interests had sprung up like mushrooms during the night.”

The plot is slight, as it’s meant to be, I think; Benson is showing the intrigues of an entirely ordinary, respectable English village. Daisy and Lucia jostle for the favour of a Guru, later Lucia is nearly dethroned when a genuine prima donna buys a holiday home in the village.

When the guru first made an appearance, my heart sank, expecting casual racism in spades. While there is undoubtedly some of that present, my sense on reading the novel was the portrayal was supposed to play to stereotypes. Without giving away spoilers, I think I was right, and what is being satirised is the ignorance of Riseholme residents.

Although the portrayal of Lucia and her acolytes is clear-sighted and relentless, it’s not cruel. Benson exposes their pretentions but he never leaves his characters devastated, only slightly chastened and all to quick to bounce back into their risible ways. This is gentle, genteel comedy and it’s never unkind.

I can’t say I found Queen Lucia laugh-out-loud funny, but I know fans of the series think the later books are better. It certainly raised a smile, had wonderful characterisation and provided some much-needed escapism during these troubled times.

The BBC adapted Mapp and Lucia in 2014. I’m not entirely convinced from this trailer, although Steve Pemberton looks perfectly cast as Georgie:

 

Secondly, as a big fan of Golden Age detective fiction, I have to include some as 1920 was a significant year in the genre, when Agatha Christie published Poirot’s first outing The Mysterious Affair at Styles. From the reviews I’ve read from other bloggers joining in with the 1920 Club it sounds a great read which I’ll definitely be catching up on. Another GA title from this year which I’ve chosen for this post is Freeman Wills Croft’s first novel, The Cask. You can read it in full here.

It begins with the titular cask arriving in London on a steamer. As a Londoner I enjoyed the description of the working docks, a time long gone:

“His goal was St. Katherine’s Docks, where the Bullfinch was berthed, and, passing across Tower Hill and round two sides of the grim old fortress, he pushed on till he reached the basin in which the steamer was lying. She was a long and rather low vessel of some 800 tons burden, with engines amidships, and a single black funnel ornamented with the two green bands that marked the Company’s boats. Recently out from her annual overhaul, she looked trim and clean in her new coat of black paint.”

Very different now, when it’s all massively overpriced flats and restaurants:

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The cask is discovered to hold gold sovereigns and a human hand. Broughton, the clerk from the shipping company sent to check some cargo for a fussy client, seemed to me to have rather a cavalier attitude towards the grisly contents:

“That a serious crime had been committed he felt sure, and that it was his duty to report his discovery immediately he was no less certain. But there was the question of the consignment of wines.”

All the same, it’s not long before Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard is on the trail. The first seven chapters depict a farcical chase around London after the extraordinarily well-travelled cask, before it is finally found and the murder victim therein exposed.

Burnley has to travel to France to investigate further, which I found rather glamorous considering it took a whole day, two trains and a ferry to get to Paris. There are also trips to Belgium and to Glasgow as Burnley and his French counterpart Inspector Lefarge piece together the activities of the titular container.

Despite it being an early title in the genre, there’s still some GA tropes to enjoy in this novel, including a diagram in Chapter VI of something I’m not sure really needed elucidating, but I’m very fond of maps and room plans in GA crime so I welcomed it nonetheless:

Blessedly, there aren’t too may of the prejudices often found in GA crime, despite my fears when the French setting became apparent. But Burnley likes France and is friends with Lafarge, which was a pleasant surprise. The working classes however, are somewhat colourfully portrayed:

“‘See ’ere, boss,’ the words now poured out of his mouth in a rapid stream, ‘I’ll tell you the truth, I will, swelp me Gawd. Listen to me.’”

As a lifelong Londoner I can assure you this is *exactly* how we sound, swelp me Gawd.  Thankfully Croft soon abandons attempts at depicting the lower orders loquaciousness:

“Palmer’s statement, divested of its cockney slang and picturesque embellishments was as follows:—”

The Cask is a good, solid mystery. The puzzle is set up and we follow the police as they piece together what happened, step by step. If that makes it sound boring, it really isn’t. All the clues seem to point to one suspect but like the police, we’re really not sure he did it. I enjoyed this as an undemanding read but one that sustained my interest and attention, which is praise indeed at the moment, as I have the attention span of a particularly distractible goldfish.

To end, if there’s one thing associated with the 1920s, it’s the flapper. Here’s a clip from the 1920 silent film of that name, the whole of which is available to view on YouTube, and from this trailer looks quite fun: