Monday, August 4, 2014

Lucia on Holiday by Guy Fraser-Sampson

I have a confession to make.

I am a Luciaphile.

(Well, that wasn’t painful at all.)

What do you mean, you don’t know what a Luciaphile is?

Luciaphile: (n.) A person who treasures and constantly re-reads the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson, to the point of regarding the characters of these books some of his or her very best friends.  (“Harris Dictionary”)

If you have never read these novels (six in number, plus the short story “The Male Impersonator”), you must drop everything right this very minute and rush out and get them and devour them.  Read them in order, beginning with Queen Lucia and ending with Trouble for Lucia.  The machinations and intrigues of Lucia, Miss Mapp, Georgie, and Major Benjy, along with all the other residents of the seemingly-sleepy and backwater English villages of Riseholme and Tilling, are not to be missed.  Once you experience these characters, you want more and more of them.  They are some of the few books that I have re-read many times in my life, just for the sheer joy of the stories.  I can’t possibly give you even a half-hearted synopsis of these stories here, but if you are interested, there’s a wonderful introduction to some of them at the In So Many Words… blog (  And as you get deeper into the universe of Mapp and Lucia, there’s a delightful M&L Glossary here:

In the 1980’s, the author Tom Holt took a stab at writing continuations of the Mapp and Lucia stories with his novels Lucia in Wartime and Lucia Triumphant.  I loved both of these but especially the latter, because in it the villagers of Tilling throw up their usual pastimes of bridge and golf for – Monopoly.  It’s too funny.

Sometimes when an author takes over another author’s characters, it’s pretty much a disaster, no matter how painstakingly the new author tries to indwell the characters and the mind of the original author.  For Exhibit A, I have but one word:

Need I say more?  If you've tried to read this book, I think I need say nothing else about it.

Anyway, Holt pulled off the close-to-impossible: writing Mapp and Lucia stories that literally felt as if they had sprung from the mind and pen of Benson himself.  After you finish reading all of Benson’s M&L novels (they don’t take that long – it’s much like eating potato chips, or maybe chocolate, just name your poison), I would recommend reading Holt’s as well because he really did a good job of continuing the stories.

In 2008 another author, Guy Fraser-Sampson, tried to channel Benson.  So far he has written three Mapp and Lucia books.  I’m not ready to give up on him quite yet, but on the evidence of Lucia on Holiday, I have to say that Fraser-Sampson does NOT understand these characters, and produces nothing more than a crass caricature of them.  It ends up being a very broad-brush, heavy-handed treatment of Benson’s beloved characters.  Where Benson would have treated his characters with a light, graceful touch, merely suggesting at times the main point he wanted to get across, with plenty of irony and sarcasm thrown in for good measure, Fraser-Sampson beats the reader over the head at every turn with his characterizations.  In Benson, Major Benjy is a lovable, gruff buffoon; in Fraser-Sampson’s hands he becomes a bumbling, openly lecherous idiot who spends a good part of the novel chasing a pretty young thing staying at his hotel.  Throughout the novel, the interactions between Mapp and Lucia seem much more acrimonious and petty, without the deft touches of humor one gets in Benson’s tales.  And Georgie practically comes out of the closet in front of everyone with his new valet, Francesco.  For a true Luciaphile, all these things are pretty disturbing – they have the effect of tarnishing characters one has come to know and love over the years like real people.

Bellagio, Italy on Lake Como.  Fraser-Sampson DID do an excellent job of describing the location in his novel -- in my mind's eye, it looked exactly like this.

A brief synopsis of the novel: Lucia has made more money on the stock market than even she can spend.  So she decides to spend a large chunk of it on a long holiday to Italy.  The location, Bellagio, is chosen by her husband, Georgie (who in turn is persuaded to vacation there by his opera star crush, Olga Bracely).  They are followed to Italy by the Mapp-Flints, and also the Wyses, in order to transport some of Tilling society to Italy and set the stage for the events of the novel.  (Not that there are that many hijinks, nor are they that amusing.)  The Mapp-Flints also happen to be “baby-sitting” the son of a Maharajah, one of Major Benjy’s friends from his days in India.  With this task comes the use of the Maharajah’s brand-new Bugatti Royale, which, when I consulted the Google about it, I realized this is a famous car one often sees in period piece movies:

Needless to say, in Major Benjy’s less-than-capable driving gloves, the Bugatti does not stay brand new for long.  I have to admit, the gradual deterioration of the car through dents and scrapes and crashes into ditches is one of the more amusing parts of the novel.  It’s kind of like a running gag.

Poppy, the Duchess of Sheffield, makes an appearance, as well as Mr. Wyse’s sister Amelia, and all in all one would think the stage would be set for a wonderful Mapp and Lucia novel.  But it never quite seems to gel.

I really want to like the Fraser-Sampson Lucia novels, because having new Lucia stories to read is quite an excellent prospect.  And I will probably read the others he has already written, just to be able to say I have done it.  But I will take some fancy footwork to convince me that Fraser-Sampson deserves the mantle of E.F. Benson as the newest chronicler of Lucia’s exploits.

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