Today in Literary History – July 24, 1867 – comic novelist E.F. Benson, creator of Mapp and Lucia, is born

E.F. Benson, the Edwardian author of the lightheartedly satirical Mapp and Lucia novels, was born on July 24, 1867, at Wellington College, in Berkshire, England, where his father, an Anglican clergyman who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, was then headmaster.

Benson was christened as Edward Frederick and used E.F. Benson in his writing but was universally known as Fred.

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The Benson family was a highly unusual one, full of high achievers, a touch of mental illness, and a good deal of sexual fluidity.

Benson’s father, Edward White Benson, fell in love with his cousin Mary “Minnie” Sedgewick when he was 24 and she was only 11. Her mother insisted that he wait until she was 18 to marry.

Minnie was fiercely intellectual. Prime Minister William Gladstone declared her to be “the cleverest woman in Europe.”

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Benson’s father as Archbishop of Canterbury

The couple had six children, although Minnie had many female lovers throughout the marriage. After her much older husband died she lived openly with her lover, Lucy Tait, the daughter of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury.

Soon, Benson’s sister Maggie, an Egyptologist, moved in with Minnie and Lucy along with her own female lover, causing some strain. Later there was an unexplained violent indecent and Maggie spent her last years in an insane asylum.

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Minnie with her three surviving sons, Fred, Hugh and Arthur

Benson’s older brother, Arthur, was a distinguished Cambridge don, Master of Magdalene College, and an author of bestselling ghost stories.

Benson’s younger brother, Hugh, converted to Catholicism and became a Monsignor. He was also the author of dystopian science fiction novels and religious tracts.

All three brothers were what we would now classify as “gay,” although that category was still unknown in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Benson had lots of gay and lesbian characters in his novels, and with Georgie, Lucia’s campy best friend, he is often credited with creating the first openly gay character in mainstream fiction.

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Arthur, Hugh, and Fred in later years

Benson was very athletic and spent much of his life promoting winter sports, even representing England in international figure skating competitions.

He lived much of his life in Rye, Sussex, a quiet provincial town, where he was briefly the mayor. Benson used Rye as the basis for the town of Tilling, the setting for most of his books featuring pretentious, upper middle-class social climbers Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas, known as Lucia.

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Benson at Cambridge

Benson wrote over 80 books in all sorts of genres but he is best remembered for Mapp and Lucia, although his horror stories do have a devoted Lovecraftian following. One of them was even adapted in the 1960s as a Twilight Zone episode on TV.

After Benson’s death in 1940 the Mapp and Lucia books went out of print. They were considered quaint even during his lifetime and now seemed decidedly old fashioned.

Nancy Mitford, W. H. Auden, Noel Coward, and other fans ran a famous ad in the London Times saying “Will pay anything for Lucia books.”

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The series made a return to print in the 1970s and was made into two TV miniseries, first in 1985-86 for Channel 4 in England and again in 2014 for the BBC and PBS in America. At least 16 authorized Mapp and Lucia books have appeared by other authors in recent years. Still, the Mapp and Lucia books have mostly a cult following.

I read them years ago and found them charming and often hilarious. One recent critic compared them to the TV sitcom Seinfeld, “the show about nothing.”

As in Seinfeld, the characters in Mapp and Lucia aren’t always likeable and they over-react to the most mundane of slights or daily annoyances. Still, you can’t help forgiving them and seeing a bit of yourself in them.

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