The 327th Re-Reading of “Make Way for Lucia”

I have long wanted to write about one of my greatest literary influences. Figuring out just how to do it, however, has been tricky.

I wanted to introduce everyone to E.F. Benson’s “Lucia” series, but then, part of me worried that 1920’s-1930’s English county life satire might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I might even get strange looks or *shudder* side eye.

But then, I reasoned, if anyone has read Evelyn Waugh and enjoyed his works, he or she would enjoy the less bitter but equally mordant wit of Benson in “Lucia.” Or, if anyone has read P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves or Blandings Castle works, they would appreciate the slightly sharper edge to Benson’s wit.

Yet, another obstacle to sharing my soul-deep devotion to these books popped up. It was a paradox worthy of Zeno (damn you, freshman year Philosophy 101 with Mr. McCarthy at Vassar!). It is that the apotheosis of Benson’s brilliance is reached with “Mapp and Lucia,” but that it is the fourth book in the series. Certainly, you can read “Mapp and Lucia” cold and appreciate it at face value, but without reading the first three books, you are left out of the sly inside jokes about Italian, the Moonlight Sonata, baby talk, and dueling.

On the other hand, if you put your hand to the plow and work through the first three books (and short story), you receive a tremendous education as a writer, in addition to the pleasure of getting the inside scoop about Lucia, Georgie, Miss Mapp, Major Benjy, Diva Plaistow (‘christened Godiva, such a handicap’), and Mrs. Wyse and her sables.

LUCIA IN TRAINING

I have come to truly appreciate the process that Benson went through in evolving as a writer when he tackled the Lucia series. He had achieved a modicum of renown for his ghost stories and other gentle social comedies. He also wrote a curious work on figure skating (oh, the hidden depths of the one-term Mayor of Rye!). But, with Lucia, he decided to create a protagonist that we would absolutely detest, yet couldn’t resist rooting for.

Lucia is a pretender and a snob. She is the original mean girl who is ironically without a truly mean bone in her body. She is petty, though, and keeps score. She fibs and dominates her way to the top of the social life in the small, sleepy English village of Riseholme. No matter the mutinies the supporting cast might stage, Lucia always emerges serenely, graciously victorious, bestowing her particular brand of vindictive forgiveness on the vanquished.

At least, that is the Lucia we know and love by the end of “Mapp and Lucia.” Benson is uneven and, at times, unkind in his portrayal of her in the first two books. You almost get a sense that he was frustrated with his various attempts to sketch her just right (like Georgie and his eternal attempts to capture the Landgate in his art). He begins to hit his stride at the end of “Lucia in London,” but then, it’s as if this final burst of virtuosity wears him out, and he seeks refuge in the picturesque town of Tilling.

Tilling is based on the actual town of Rye in England. Benson lived there for many years in Lamb House, which is the basis for the famous Mallards. He even served as mayor. He was a scholar of ancient Greece and came from a family deeply immersed in the Anglican church.  There is a theory that he based the character of Lucia on a female novelist acquaintance, and he himself finds a way to vent his spleen as the delightfully, righteously malicious Miss Mapp.

Miss Mapp is to Tilling what Lucia is to Riseholme. But, with Tilling, Benson fine-tuned his supporting cast to perfection, as well as giving the reader shops and landmarks that Riseholme lacked. With the book “Miss Mapp,” we see Benson testing his blade and finding that it is just right and ready for a return to Lucia. But all of Riseholme’s dramas put together lack the ‘spleen and savagery’ of a single game of bridge in Tilling.

Therefore, Benson must move Lucia to Tilling, which he does in “Mapp and Lucia.” The results are…cosmic. The rivalry of Miss Mapp and Lucia is epic. Nelson and Napoleon come to mind, as does Rome and Carthage. The battles are bloody, and the strategies cold and steely. It is human nature at its absolutely most entertaining.

LUCIA THE MAGNIFICENT

It’s also human nature at its most identifiable. Strip away the stage dressing of the 1920’s and 1930’s with their telegrams, marketing baskets, and custom of dressing for dinner, and you have a trenchant but kindly portrait of the faults, foibles, and fierceness of character. We can all identify with Lucia in the moment she is about to be found out in a little white lie or exaggeration. We can all identify with the baffled fury of Miss Mapp at a snub. We share Diva’s excitement over a new dress, or Georgie’s pleasure in the comforts of home. Their emotions are as human and timeless as our own.

There are few authors that I will read more than one book from. There are even fewer that I will re-read. I read the complete “Make Way for Lucia” series at least two or three times a year. There is always something new to discover in his magnificent, masterful manipulation of language. Every time I read these books, I gain new insights about pacing, dialogue tagging, restraint, and description. I luxuriate in his unabashedly rich use of vocabulary. I am obsessed with cracking the code to what keeps the humor fresh.

LUCIAPHILS

In “Lucia in London,” while the titular character is busy clawing her way to the top of the smart set in the metropolis, a clique of devotees dub themselves ‘Luciaphils’ because they find her brazen antics utterly captivating and entertaining.

Legion are those who, in the decades since the first printing, have sworn allegiance to the society of Luciaphils. There have been attempts to capture the cheeky charm and bloody wit for the small screen. Unfortunately, these have been as successful as Lucia’s attempts at a ‘morsel of Stravinski.’ Some things simply cannot be translated from the written word.

Speaking of the written word, though, the English novelist Tom Holt (another one of my favorites) managed to capture Benson’s voice and wit perfectly in two novels and a short story. It’s kind of the ultimate fan fiction, and yet, it’s more than that. It’s a true homage to a master. Therefore, I recommend after completing “Make Way for Lucia,” you should try “Lucia Triumphant,” “Lucia in Wartime,” and “The Diplomatic Incident” (in that order, despite their publication dates).

I would love to initiate more people into the wonderful world of Lucia, and Luciaphils are always welcome here for Lobster a la Riseholme and Isabelle Poppit’s red currant fool…

The Shelf of Fiction I Would Save in a Fire

I am a horrible person.

At least when it comes to fiction.

I judge mercilessly. I fling aside into the DNF pile with wild abandon. I curl my lip at typos and sneer at poor word-smithing. I flip the bird (and sometimes the book) at puerile plotting.

However, over the course of my life, I have encountered books that have rocked my world in various ways. Some books entertained me. Some books changed my fundamental views of life and love. Others pushed my development as a writer. Still more became the type of books I want to write when I grow up.

So, without further ado, I present…the exquisite collection of Fiction Cait Would Save in a Fire.

YOUNG ADULT BOOKS

These were the books I read as a tween and teenager. Over. And over. And over again. Aside from Dandelion Wine, they all featured strong heroines on amazing adventures. These heroines faced their greatest fears, overcame mistakes, and saved the day. I read Dandelion Wine in my freshman year of high school, and one story in particular about the old lady and the young man blew me away with the magnitude of life, love, and death.

COLLEGE, FRANCE, AND THE BEAUTIFUL PAIN OF WIT

I was a French major in college and studied abroad in Paris. I made my pilgrimage to Victor Hugo’s house. I sat in cafes. I thought deep, dark thoughts about life. I then learned to both embrace the strange, bittersweet finality of things and shrug my shoulders at it, because it’s only life after all.

A cautious step beyond classics and comfort zones

Nobody should be surprised to see Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, and Dracula on my list. Halton Cray is one of the most delightful riffs on Jane Eyre that I have ever read. But then, I realized I needed to start reading beyond my comfort zone, and I discovered books like Apathy and A Confederacy of Dunces that made me laugh, and books like The Shipping News and The Red Tent that made me cry.

Going Way, WAY out of my comfort Zone

None of these books have anything in common…except for the fact that they are amazing. Each one of them is exquisitely written, completely immersive, book-hangover-worthy, and taught me something absolutely vital about the craft of writing.

THE UNICORN: SERIES I WILL ACTUALLY READ

I will not read series. In general, I find it difficult to maintain interest in the characters over the long term. However, these writers managed to convince me that their characters had more to give, more to grow, and more to say. That is the highest tribute I can give a writer’s craft. Well, that, and buying the next book in the series.

I SHOWED YOU MINE…

Now, show me yours!

Leave a comment with your “Shelf of Fiction You Would Save in a Fire”!

I’m always looking for a good read…

If You Write Fiction, Read Non-Fiction

The top half of ONE of my bookshelves.

I am insatiably curious. This has led to a slight issue (some might say addiction) with buying books.

Non-fiction books.

For an author, my actual collection of fiction is quite small. That’s probably because I’m such a picky bitch about the caliber of storytelling and writing I will read.

But, non-fiction? OMG, it’s a real problem. Eric and I recently went to IKEA because I had to buy a whole new bookshelf system. I got the Billy bookshelves…and the extra shelf extension. I literally have books floor-to-ceiling now.

Yet, I regret nothing. NOTHING.

but…but…isn’t all that non-fiction boring?

Hardly! Most of the time, I end up reading things and am like, ‘You seriously can’t make that shit up.’ Reality is way, way weirder than fiction. Dragons included.

I will absolutely admit that non-fiction has experienced a renaissance since the 90’s, shaking off the dust of academic ponderous pomposity and embracing engaging narratives, clever topics, and intelligent and witty writing.

Most importantly, though, is the fact that through non-fiction, we learn more about the world and people around us. What’s more fascinating than that? The more I read, no matter what the subject, the more I see intriguing connections that help me weave more complex, compelling stories.

It doesn’t matter if you are writing historical, contemporary, paranormal, romance, or even epic fantasy. Reading non-fiction will make you a better writer.

Non-Fiction and Research

It’s hard to think of a single really good work of fiction that hasn’t relied on some pretty solid non-fiction research.

I can think of a lot of really, really bad fiction that clearly shows signs of the author not giving a fuck about facts. I remember reading an erotica story where the main female character is an interior designer.  She lands a multi-million dollar project designing a hotel…and pitches in with the painting crew she hired to help paint the owner’s suite to get it done on time.

REALLY? REALLY???? Seriously?

It would have taken exactly six minutes to go to Wikipedia, look up ‘interior designer,’ and scrolled down to the bottom where it lists exactly the type of work that interior designers do, as opposed to…interior decorators. As opposed to people pretending to be interior designers who violate all kinds of union, OSHA, and other insurance and contract restrictions to ‘pitch in’ and help paint walls.

Sure, we could say that it’s ‘just’ erotica, and we’re supposed to be suspending disbelief anyway. Let’s just put aside any kind of professional pride, attention to detail, and desire to produce quality books. From a purely technical perspective, taking care to get a little detail like that right (even if it means reading a boring Wikipedia article) actually encourages the suspension of belief.  Accuracy grounds a story in reality in a way that is absolutely tantalizing because it is logical and could happen, and therefore enhances the fantasy.

Okay, I may have gone off the rails a bit here, but my main point stands. Good fiction needs research, and research gets easier the more we accustom ourselves to reading non-fiction.

It’s almost as bad as wearing a pocket protector

Okay, fine. I’ll admit it. It’s not just books I have a problem with.

I am an insatiable magazine article ripper-outer.  Daphne Lamb, Kim Alexander, and Genevieve Raas from The Fabulous Fictionistas can attest to this, having seen me tear through show dailies, catalogs, and other periodicals at Book Expo America.

My husband, bless him, knows me so very, very well. For Christmas one year, he got me a subscription to ‘Astronomy.’ I have my own subscriptions to ‘Discover’ and ‘Archaeology.’

I am the chick on the beach, drinking things with umbrellas in them and completely engrossed in an article about black holes. Don’t get me wrong. I am not a scientist and even less of a mathematician. God invented calculators for a reason. ‘Discover’ is written for people like me. Obscure scientific ideas are broken down simply. The writing is clear and entertaining. And, over time, the more I read, the more I learn, and the more familiar scientific concepts become.

I know what you are thinking. Don’t I write historical romance and paranormal YA? What am I doing reading about amoebas and pretending it makes a difference to my writing?

Well, just for the record, I drew on some of the articles I had read about quantum physics and astronomy for ‘Downcast,’ and the sequel has quite a bit of science behind the scenes. In fact, the whole premise of ‘Thunderstruck’ came from an article in ‘Discover.’

It’s more than that, though.

I’ve come across articles about how neurochemistry can explain why we get such a rush from reconnecting with a first love. I’ve read about pioneering immunology research in the 1880’s that used bacteria and provided a critical breakthrough with major writer’s block. I get clues I didn’t know I was looking for, plot bunnies, and just the sheer pleasure of exercising my brain.

Science and history are not everyone’s cup of tea…or Petri dish. I get it. But, we should all be constantly learning and expanding our horizons in both literature and non-fiction. The more we learn and know, the more we naturally anchor our story to facts, pay attention to world-building, and create connections between characters and concepts that make our stories deeper, richer, and most importantly…more worth reading.

Cue NBC’s “The More You Know” theme music.

via GIPHY