Queen Lucia by E F Benson

I've written a very popular essay about my passion for E F Benson for the Newtown Review of Books. As expected, after writing it I was inundated with people on social media who were Benson fans. And, equally expected, my own Bensonmania was re-ignited, and I began to read the novels again. In snatches at first - a page of Lucia in London here, a chapter of Mapp and Lucia there.

E F Benson

A couple of years ago I appeared at the Queer Literary Salon at the Melbourne Writers Festival. One of the things that MC Benjamin Law asked us to do was bring along the books that helped shape our Queer lives. Of course, I brought along my tattered old 1986 Black Swan edition of Queen Lucia with its fantastic faux-jazz age cover.

My much-read Black Swan edition

Most of the young audience hadn't heard of Benson, but I was later to discover that Dennis Altman, the gay eminence grise amongst us, was also a Lucia fan.

A recent audio edition of Queen Lucia

I have read Queen Lucia at least six times, and I must say it simply gets better with every reading. Benson was a master, and his arch phrasing and perfect - though always subtle - rendering of social types means that any reader would feel at home in its pages.

One of the things I find interesting about the book is its consideration of alternative religions. Published in 1920, it was written at a moment of a great rekindling of interest in Eastern religion and Spiritualism in England. Benson's provincial middle-class characters have taken to these things just a moment too late, and the small town of Riseholme is abuzz with gurus, yoga, mediums and planchettes. Daisy Quantock has recently abandoned the study of Christian Science and has instead become beholden of a dozen other new religious fads, some of which are taken up with relish by everyone in the small village.

There is a great deal of casual racism in the book which makes it occasionally squirm-making, but as always it is pointless to demand that an Edwardian writer hold the same range of racial sensitivites that we can lay claim to in the 21st century. I was struck, too, by just how monstrous Lucia was. Benson's great anti-heroine is pretentious, egotistical and oddly fragile. This is the arc she will travel in all of the subsequent books: at first funny, she becomes bossy then vicious and finally pathetic as the reader begins to feel sorry for this silly, manipulative woman.

And then there is Georgie. More and more I am intrigued by this character, surely the first great sympathetric homosexual in English literature. Georgie, with his combover and glass cabinet of bibelots, his needlework and summer suits. This great middle-aged boy is the hero of Benson's novels.

Re-reading Queen Lucia is always a delight. When I do so I become even more convinced of Benson's genius as a writer - there is simply not a dull moment in the whole book.


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