Book Review: Lucia’s Progress (aka The Worshipful Lucia)

Lucia’s Progress (or The Worshipful Lucia) by E F Benson (1935)

Over the last several days I have been browsing through the introductions to a number of the E. F. Benson books that I own and found myself disagreeing for a number a reasons with the critical pronouncements in some of them.

Warning: spoilers abound in the discussion below. If the reader has not already read all of the Mapp and Lucia books information about was has (or will have) happened to the characters will leak out from among the sentences. As I great fan of all of the books in the series I advise that those who have not already read them do so. Of this book I can say without spoiling anything that it rated 4 stars the first time I read it, 4-1/2 the second and that the spoiler-filed discussion below explains why I now give it 5 stars.

In his introduction to E. F. Benson’s An Autumn Sowing John Julius Norwich writes of Benson:

despite the liveliness of his style and the deadly accuracy of his social satire, the vast majority of his work is now forgotten; he lives on, above all, in the ‘Lucia’ series — of which Queen Lucia and Lucia in London are the best[1]

By what criteria I wonder does Mr. Norwich considers those two novels the best of the ‘Lucia’ series? The answer to that question is implied later in the same sentence when he refers to those who realize who Dodo of the ‘Dodo’ book was based on as the “true cognoscenti.” For those who read Benson’s books in order to decode what real life person each character might be based on and thus what snide and arch things Benson might have been saying about some society figure–then I would agree Lucia in London is, without doubt, the best of the Lucia books. However if one reads Benson for his insight into the realities of the lives of the (financially, socially and culturally) declining gentry the latter books in the Lucia series are far more rewarding.

On first reading The Worshipful Lucia is just another charming series of events and episodes in the ongoing battle for the social supremacy of Tilling between Mrs. Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) and Mrs. Mapp-Flint. On repeated readings I have found the book to be subtle and light-handed examination of the economic and social fluctuations of the English gentry in the last decade before the beginning of the Second World War.

Those fluctuations can be traced by noting the successes and failures of three women: Lucia, Elizabeth Mapp and Dame Catherine Winterglas. Lucia (Mrs. Emmeline Lucas) was one of the principal characters of Benson’s earlier books Queen Lucia, Lucia in London and Mapp and Lucia. Elizabeth Mapp Rating: 5 stars

[1] Benson, E. An autumn sowing. London: Hogarth Press, 1988.


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