Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Gardens in 'Mapp and Lucia'

I'd been meaning to read E F Benson's stories of Mapp and Lucia for ages and a recent holiday in Sussex, staying in Rye, prompted me to do so. I fell in love with Rye and so it was wonderful to read the stories and picture both the author as well as his characters going about their daily business.
Lamb House, now owned by the National Trust

Benson, like Henry James before him, lived in Lamb House, a beautiful Georgian house at the top of a cobbled street in Rye. This house and the nearby street on a steep hill plays a major role in his Mapp and Lucia stories: it is where Miss Mapp lives in Tilling (ie Rye) and where she keeps a close eye from the garden room on all her neighbours. The garden room was sadly destroyed in real life in 1940. 'Mallards' as it is called in the stories is later bought by Lucia, who essentially becomes Queen Bee in Tilling, thereby deposing Miss Mapp from that role.

The back garden at Lamb House - I can imagine the fete taking place here as described in the stories

Gardens play a major as well as a subtle role in the stories in both Tilling and Riseholme (the latter where Lucia and her devotee lived before moving to Tilling). Here are a few examples but I won't say too much as I think I might write an article on it! In Riseholme, Lucia - in her homage to 'authentic' Elizabethan life - created one part of her garden with only the flowers mentioned by Shakespeare. Georgie and his neighbour Daisy frequently chatted over their garden fences to catch up on Lucia's latest schemes. All the characters enjoy gardening and painting pictures of their flowers. There is a tussle over garden produce when Lucia rents Miss Mapp's house - Miss Mapp says the rent does not include the garden produce and instructs the gardener to remove it all and sell it to the local greengrocer. Needless to say that causes much tension when Lucia finds out...

The kitchen garden - source of much tension for Mapp and Lucia

View from the church tower towards Lamb House and garden

Lucia throws Italian phrases into her conversations in order to give the impression that she speaks perfect Italian. With the imminent arrival of the Countess, an actual perfect Italian speaker, Lucia realises she could be exposed as a fraud and so feigns illness and hides at home for the entire length of the Countess' visit. Miss Mapp is very suspicious but try as she might, she can't catch a glimpse of Lucia when casually walking past or trying to pop in. Then she remembers that there is a view of Mallards' garden from the top of the church tower and she is rewarded by Lucia, oblivious to anyone watching, doing her calisthenics exercises in the garden! Quite clearly, she has been lying about her illness but without spoiling the plot, this information doesn't give Miss Mapp the one-upmanship over Lucia she craves....