Tuesday, June 29, 2010

literary flutterings & a persistent li'l question

I find hot weather the time to reread the Mapp and Lucia books by E.F. Benson. They don't all take place in the summer, but there is something about this time of the year that pushes them to the front of the mind: iced red-currant fool and strawberry teas and bitter gardening feuds; Lucia's giardino segreto and Georgie calling "naughty boy" through the speaking tube to his chauffeur on his trips to the beach.

So this is when I reach for the six novels, which were published in omnibus form as Make Way for Lucia. Edward Gorey, called "America's chief Luciaphile" by editor Patrick O'Connor (Gorey brought to his attention the short story "The Male Impersonator," which has been included in subsequent editions of the omnibus), said among many mentions of Benson in interviews, "I know the Lucia books by E.F. Benson by heart." They are that kind of reading.

People blah-blah a lot about the atmospheric self-contained worlds novels create we want to be part of, but part of the appeal of these books is that the characters don't want to be anywhere else themselves. They are obsessed with life and gossip in their small towns, all out of proportion to the world around them. "'And how was London?'" asks Lucia's husband in the first book, "in the sort of tone in which he might have inquired after the health of a poor relation, who was not likely to recover." Lucia goes on in the second book to conquer a bemused London with her foaming, naked, social-climbing, but even then Riseholme, the Elizabethean village where she lives, wins in the end, in its bid for our (and her) attention.

"Rationally, it ought to grow dull, but it doesn't," says Philip Hensher in an essay about the social war (there's no other word) between Lucia and Miss Mapp that takes place on the battlefield of these small English towns. Nancy Mitford writes in her introduction to the omnibus: "The jokes seem quite obvious and are often repeated: we can never have enough of them....It never, never palls." I'm not sure the jokes are obvious, but either way the writing is so masterful that I feel breathless waiting for each bit to arrive, all these rereadings later. Mapp and Lucia don't even meet until the fourth book; Benson spends as much time creating the characters on their own as putting them in conflict, and it is a tribute to his writing ability that every book is as exciting as the other, and that the conflict is as delicious as you hope.

(Some random-randoms: the comic novelist Tom Holt wrote two well-regarded 'sequels' to the Mapp & Lucia books, and is the son of Hazel Holt, the mystery novelist and Barbara Pym biographer.)

Here's what I want to know: Who is the Anne Parrish who wrote the foreword to Make Way for Lucia? I've been trying to find an answer to this for a long time.

It seems likely that the Anne Parrish in question is the American novelist of that name, but nothing has ever linked the two definitively that I can find. Parrish the novelist died in 1957; as far as I can tell the first time an omnibus edition was published was in 1977. It doesn't seem like the foreword was from earlier editions of single books since it mentions them all being collected together. She writes in it about visiting Benson at his home in Rye, which obviously would have had to be prior to his death in 1940.

More random-randoms: Anne Parrish was the older brother of Dillwyn Parrish, M.F.K. Fisher's second husband, which is how my ears pricked up in the first place about all this (rabid MFKery). Parrish traveled a lot, and was quite wealthy, so it doesn't seem improbable that she would have visited Benson (she also was an owner of Le Paquis, the property in Switzerland where Fisher and Parrish lived before the war). A very tenuous connection could lie in Benson's familiarity with Maxfield Parrish (Anne Parrish was a distant cousin and posed as a child for some of his work).

Anyhow...anybody know? Someone apparently forwarded my query to Patrick O'Connor a while ago, but I haven't heard anything. Perhaps his introduction to the Moyer Bell reissue of Queen Lucia or his memoir Don't Look Back clears it up? Maybe I'm missing something really obvious. Me curious!

Note: 2010, the 70th year since Benson's death, is also the jubilee year for the E.F. Benson Society, and there are a few events coming up for members, if you can get yourself to England.

UPDATE: Per a helpful member of a Benson group, I found out that there was a 1936 American omnibus edition of the (then) four Lucia novels published called All About Lucia, and Parrish's foreword first appears there. So indeed it very likely might have been Anne Parrish the novelist who wrote the foreword! Thanks Friends-of-Fred!

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