Rye: home of novelist E F Benson

PUBLISHED: 13:04 20 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:54 20 February 2013

Rye: home of novelist E F Benson

Rye: home of novelist E F Benson

E F Benson is today best-known for his comic Mapp & Lucia novels which were adapted for television in the Eighties. Benson became part of the fabric of Rye life, even serving as Mayor for three years. Words: Jenny Mark-Bell

Each year the Friends of Tilling gather in Rye to remember the writer EF Benson and his comic novels. This year two attendees came all the way from Brooklyn. But Rye occasionally forgets about Benson, who was Town Mayor for three years.

EF Benson was blazingly popular during his lifetime (1867-1940). He was an extraordinarily prolific writer, with more than 100 books to his credit, but his enduring legacy is his six Mapp & Lucia books.

The novels were adapted for a television series in the Eighties starring Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales as the two aspirational ladies, Emmeline Lucia Lucas and Elizabeth Mapp.

Three of the books are set in Tilling, a fictional Sussex town based on Rye, where Benson had a home.

Benson or Fred as he was known moved to Rye when he was 40 and was extremely happy in the town. He was invited to visit by his good friend Henry James, and eventually occupied James former home Lamb House, now owned by the National Trust.

Benson had a remarkable childhood. He was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and of Mary Benson, whom William Gladstone dubbed the cleverest woman in Europe.

Her future husband was so impressed by her intellect at their first meeting that he vowed to marry her on the spot, despite her being only eight years old at the time. He finally got his wish when she was 18, but it was not a happy marriage for the very good reason that Mary Benson loved women. Later in life she settled with her lover Lucy Tate at Horsted Keynes.

Fred was also gay, as were his four remaining siblings. Some doubt exists as to whether he ever consummated a relationship, which is worth mentioning because of the extreme chastity of his novels. In the later Mapp and Lucia novels two of the characters enter into a marriage that is indubitably platonic.

Queen Lucia the first of the series was one of the bestselling books of the inter-war period and Benson made 10,000 in royalties the year it was published, a staggering amount of money in those days. Benson had some fans in high places. Nancy Mitford is quoted as saying: We would kill for the next Mapp & Lucia novel.

Writer Guy Fraser-Sampson has been absorbed by the world and personalities of Tilling since the age of 10, when he stayed awake to listen to the BBCs Book at Bedtime under the bed covers. They did Queen Lucia and I was captivated by it, Guy says. I felt that the characters were almost real people and I could imagine conversations with them. Perhaps it was inevitable, that he would publish continuations of the series. His latest, Lucia on Holiday, was published earlier this year and featured on Radio 4s Open Book with Mariella Frostrup.

Fans of the books, and of the television series, relish the efficiency with which Lucia puts paid to Mapps attempts to depose her as Queen of Tilling. Much of the humour derives from the ladies desperate attempts to appear more cultured than they really are. For example, one butchers Italian, the other French. Malapropisms abound.

The books are outwardly snobbish but Benson delighted in puncturing social pretensions, says Guy Fraser-Sampson. In his earlier books he was accused of being quite cruel. One of his earliest works, Dodo, satirised a well-known society hostess, Margot Tennant, and he came under a lot of personal criticism for that. I would describe them as comedies of manners, and he has people with hugely inflated social aspirations just so he can puncture them.

In common with those of PG Wodehouse, the Tilling novels are set in an uncertain era that probably never existed. Apart from a very fleeting mention of a war widow there are few references to the First World War, which is obviously something that would have scarred a whole generation psychologically, says Guy. One can actually use the rather loose chronology to ones advantage, and I made use of a real life event in Lucia on Holiday. Rather remarkable from a Sussex point of view is the point that Benson also moved Tilling geographically (from Sussex to Hampshire) during the course of the novels!

In the novels Tilling is hyper-social, especially at times of open hostilities between Mapp and Lucia. There are endless dinner parties, contract bridge and tableaux to rehearse. By contrast Benson was very private and secluded, says Guy Fraser Sampson: Although he entertained quite regularly in the Mermaid Inn, various visitors to Lamb House said he was quite unwelcoming. In his Mapp & Lucia novels Benson threw open the world of Tilling and its social scene, but Benson remained emotionally distant, even to his closest friends. He died in 1940 two years after being made a Freeman of the town and, after a civic funeral at St Marys Church, was buried in Rye cemetery.

The Friends of Tilling celebrate the Lucia novels and the other comic works of E F Benson. The Friends organise the annual Tilling gathering in Rye each September, bringing together devotees to revel in the world of Tilling and to remember the life of its creator.
Lucia on Holiday by Guy Fraser-Sampson is published by Elliott & Thompson and priced 7.99

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