As E.F. Benson’s Queen Lucia (1920) begins, Mrs Emmeline Lucas, the eponymous Lucia, is the undisputed queen of her small and highly ritualized English country society. Because every little action has so much importance – the discovery and carefully-ordered dissemination of news, for example, has both immediate and lasting social consequences –the town of Riseholme is inordinately high-strung. Lucia revels in her status as the leader of this excitable society, aided by her unquestioning and devoted devotee Georgie, until a series of newcomers to town threatens her kingdom. All of Lucia’s scheming and conversational warfare cannot erase the impact of the yoga Guru, the opera singer Olga Bracely, and the fraudulent Russian psychic Princess Popoffski.
After the systematic toppling of Lucia from her former position as Queen – her musical and Italian-speaking skills are revealed to be far less capable than she presents them; Lucia’s social-planning is eclipsed and parties thrown by other people threaten her own; she begins to be the last to be informed of local news – I was disappointed by Benson’s realization, close to the end of the novel, that he needed to quickly reset Riseholme back to its start. In the last few pages, Georgie becomes Benson’s cipher, hurriedly working to overturn all of the changes brought about by the Guru, Olga, and the Princess in order to restore the long-established order. It was frustrating in the way Star Trek Voyager episodes are frustrating: nothing that happened in this novel really mattered, because nothing had long-term consequences. The only great character change I saw, Georgie’s falling in love with Olga, was also washed away in the epilogue as Lucia regained her monarchy, Olga was whisked away to perform in America, Georgie took back his place as Lucia’s follower, Mrs Quantock eagerly seized upon yet another health fad, Peppino went back to his work as an author, and everything went back to the “normal” introduced in the first few chapters. Certainly, Benson was making a point about the long-term immutability of English country society, but it made for an unsatisfying novel. It almost felt as if this entire book was merely the introduction to the series.
Of course, I’ll go on to read them all! This series is too highly spoken of among this blogging community for me to ignore them. Despite my dissatisfaction at the hurried ending, Queen Lucia was highly enjoyable, though not among my favorites of the year, with an interestingly quirky writing style and a number of subtle allusions that enhanced my experience as a reader “in the know” about things like Church of England polity and gay opera queens. There’s a used bookstore near here that, a few months ago, had more than a few of the Lucia and Mapp novels. Perhaps it’s time for a trip back there to see if the whole set is available.