Queen Lucia, by E.F. Benson, Moyer Bell, Wakefield, Rhode Island. $10.95, paperback.
Just in time to fill the vacuum left by the demise of ‘Seinfeld’, Moyer Bell has published what could be considered its more sophisticated literary antecedent, Queen Lucia. In the same way that the famed television series ‘about nothing’ focuses on the trivial escapades of its quirky New York characters, E.F. Benson’s brilliant novel introduces us to the daily routine of the Riseholme set, the residents of a small, Edwardian English village.
The driving force in Riseholme, indeed the very sun around which the other villagers orbit, is Mrs. Emmeline Lucas, known by her devotees as Lucia–the Italian la Lucia meaning ‘the wife of Lucas’. The pompous appellation is the reader’s first glimpse into Lucia’s affected personae. Further indications of her pretension include her home, The Hurst, with all its rooms named after Shakespearean plays, and her highly publicized penchant for music and drama. My personal favourite is her habit of playing the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata while eschewing the other two movements because ‘she could never bring herself to believe that they were on the same astounding level as the first, and, besides, they “went” very much faster.’
I could go on and on about Lucia, but as with many of the real people like her I know, mere description does not suffice. You have to know her to fully appreciate the nuances of her personality. So in order to ‘meet’ her, you’ll have to read the book.
The other characters who populate the fictional village are equally entertaining. Georgie, Lucia’s effeminate best friend, does needlework, dresses foppishly, and shrinks in abashed horror from his boorish sisters, Hermy and Ursy. He has spent most of his adult life deferring to Lucia’s position of social superiority with a childlike acceptance. But through the course of the novel Georgie comes to question her omnipotence and glimpse, if only momentarily, the truly pathetic nature of her affectations.
Daisy Quantock, as the ever-sarcastic narrator informs us, is ‘one of those intensely happy people who pass through life in ecstatic pursuit of some idea which those who do not share it call a fad.’ This yearning first leads her to pursue the curative powers of Uric Acid, and then, almost as disastrously, down the path of Christian Science. Daisy at first faithfully defers to Lucia’s position as social queen, but she, too, gains a fierce sense of independence from her, and even makes an attempt at rivalling Lucia for her position of primacy.
Other Riseholmeites who fill out the social circle include the crusty old Colonel Boucher and his secret sweetheart, the bath-chair-bound Mrs. Weston; the Antrobus sisters, Piggie and Goosie, and their old, nearly-deaf mother; and Lady Ambermere, the ancient dowager of The Hall.
Benson choreographs all these characters in such a way that their daily foibles provide endless comic material. Just as Seinfeld gave us the ‘Soup Nazi’ and the ‘Yada Yada’ episodes, Benson conjures up even more laughable escapades, notably ‘the Guru’ and ‘Princess Popofski’.
But the true drama of the novel centres around the arrival of a newcomer to Riseholme, Olga Bracely, a talented young opera singer who decides to move to the village because she’s looking for a ‘delicious ‘hole-in-the-corner, lazy backwater sort of place where nothing ever happens, and nobody ever does anything.’ Without ever trying to, Olga usurps Lucia’s position as chatelaine of Riseholme and unintentionally exposes Lucia’s provincialism and ignorance in the process.
The novel works its way to an appropriately hilarious conclusion that leaves Riseholme, just like the typical 20th-century sitcom, pretty much back to normal again. In the end it is Olga who makes the most astute observation about the village and its way of life: ‘I never knew before how terribly interesting little things were. . . . Is it all of you who take such a tremendous interest in them that makes them so absorbing, or is it that they are absorbing in themselves . . . ?’
As for me, I readily admit to being completely sucked in by these ‘little things’ for the last 243 pages. I’d have to say that it’s a little of both.
Leigh Ann Berry