I was reading Green Thoughts by Eleanor Perenyi when I came upon a reference to Lamb House at Rye in Sussex. E. F. Benson lived there from 1916 until his death in 1940. In his comedy of manners Mapp and Lucia novels, Benson made Lamb House and its garden-room the fictional residence of Miss Elizabeth Mapp, calling the house Mallards in the fictional village of Tilling.
When Perenyi quoted Benson’s description of the Lamb House garden, I had to look up Mapp and Lucia. I was not disappointed.
Queen Lucia, the first novel in the series, introduces Emmeline Lucas, aka ’Lucia.’ Calling her pretentious, is being very kind. Here is Benson’s description of her garden in the village of Riseholme where we first meet her.
“A yew hedge, bought entire from a neighbouring farm, and transplanted with solid lumps of earth and indignant snails around its roots, separated the small oblong garden from the road, and cast monstrous shadows of the shapes into which it was cut, across the little lawns inside. Here, as was only right and proper, there was not a flower to be found save such as were mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare; indeed it was called Shakespeare’s garden, and the bed that ran below the windows of the dining-room was Ophelia’s border, for it consisted solely of those flowers which that distraught maiden distributed to her friends when she should have been in a lunatic asylum. Mrs. Lucas often reflected how lucky it was that such institutions were unknown in Elizabeth’s day, or that, if known, Shakespeare artistically ignored their existence. Pansies, naturally, formed the chief decoration – though there were some very flourishing plants of rue. Mrs. Lucas always wore a little bunch of them when in flower, to inspire her thoughts, and found them wonderfully efficacious. Round the sundial, which was set in the middle of one of the squares of grass between which a path of broken paving-stones led to the front door, was a circular border, now, in July, sadly vacant, for it harboured only the spring-flowers enumerated by Perdita. But the first day every year when Perdita’s border put forth its earliest blossom was a delicious anniversary, and the news of it spread like wildfire through Mrs. Lucas’s kingdom, and her subjects were very joyful, and came to salute the violet or daffodil, or whatever it was.”
Tell me that garden is not pretentious.
We meet Elizabeth Mapp in the second novel, aptly titled Miss Mapp.
“She sat, on this hot July morning, like a large bird of prey at the very convenient window of her garden-room, the ample bow of which formed a strategical point of high value…This she did from a side window of the garden-room which commanded the strawberry beds; she could sit quite close to that, for it was screened by the large-leaved branches of a fig tree and she could spy unseen.”
These two outrageous women are brought together in Mapp and Lucia when Mrs. Lucas spots an advertisement for a house for rent in Tilling. Miss Mapp shows her the garden.
“’My little plot,’ said Miss Mapp. ‘Very modest, as you see, three quarters of an acre at the most, but well screened. My flower beds: sweet roses, tortoiseshell butterflies. Rather a nice clematis. My little Eden, I call it, so small but so well beloved.’ ‘ Enchanting!’ said Lucia, looking round the garden before mounting the steps up to the garden-room door. There was a very green and well-kept lawn, set in bright flower beds. A trellis at one end separated it from a kitchen garden beyond, and round the rest ran high brick walls, over which peered the roofs of other houses. In one of these walls was cut a curved archway with a della Robbia head above it…..’My little secret garden… When I am in here and shut the door, I mustn’t be disturbed for anything less than a telegram. A rule of the house; I am very strict about it.’”
Both Mapp and Lucia have an insatiable need to conquer and command. They are petty, snobby, gossipy and thoroughly entertaining.
Though based on 1920’s British society when the upper middle class had time for tea, golf and garden parties, these novels are timeless. Benson is a genius at skewering his characters with his poison pen, creating ludicrous and hilarious results.
Sadly, a year after Benson’s death a German bomb destroyed the garden-room. Now Lamb House is part of the British National Trust and open for visitors. Besides being home to Henry James and E. F. Benson, it was Rumer Godden’s home while she wrote over 30 books.