Thursday, 5 January 2012

Secret Lives by E.F. Benson

This 1932 comedy of manners is set in Durham Square, a respectable if not yet fashionable London address populated with exactly the sort of people you might expect to find in an E.F. Benson novel.  Chief among these is Mrs Mantrip, who owns most of the freeholds in the square; her clergyman father, with reformist zeal and deep pockets, bought up the property in order to evict the prostitutes who were lowering the local moral tone.  Her neighbours (who are often also her tenants) include Elizabeth Conklin, who breeds Pekinese dogs; playful Jimmie Mason, with his extravagant musical parties and exotic guests; and lately Miss Susan Leg, who has furnished her house extravagantly and is irritating the Square with her love of writing to the accompaniment of very loud gramophone music.  The source of Susan's apparently vast income, like her social origins, is obscure.  Mrs Mantrip is the highbrow social arbiter of Durham Square but she nurtures a secret passion for the decidedly lowbrow works of Rudolph da Vinci which feature kidnappings, swarthy foreigners and an unusually large amount of flagellation.  Through a complicated dance of pseudonyms, impersonations and revelations, Rudolph's true identity will eventually be revealed.

Besides this main narrative runs a series of sub-plots extracting the maximum humour from the Square's residents, their snobberies, allegiances, quarrels and reconciliations.  Benson has a lot of fun with a campaign to enforce the rule against walking dogs in the Square's private gardens, as the opposing sides canvass opinion, co-opt supporters, and rig ballots, as well as depicting a vast number of dogs, some of which are made of wood and have wheels.  The Square has its fair share of quirky eccentrics: there is Mr Gandish with his overwhelming enthusiasm for badminton, Lady Eva who can see a halo around the head of any person, and read their character accordingly, and the Vicar who is devoted to yoga and theories of reincarnation.   All this will be familiar to readers of the Mapp and Lucia books; if this book doesn't reach the comic heights of those works, it is still very funny, and it also reaches beyond the upper-middle-class householders, bringing in Susan's admirable butler Bosanquet and her erstwhile colleague Minnie Mimps as players in the comedy.  Benson is particularly good at showing how forgiveness of slights and offences is much easier when it is socially expedient, because a neighbour has influence or just a very good cook.

Most interesting to me is the way Benson deals with lowbrow writing in a comic middlebrow text. His depiction of the self-important MP and literary critic Arthur Armstrong, who denounces Rudolph da Vinci's Rosemary and Rue in the strongest terms, suggesting it should be "annihilated", and is rewarded with a satirical portrait in Rudolph's next novel, is both funny and ironic, pointing out the hollowness at the centre of Armstrong's loudly-voiced opinions.  Rudolph's publisher reflects sadly that it would never do if his author "began to long for the appreciation of educated people, and in the effort to attain it might seriously imperil the gusto with which [he] wrote".  Even the lowbrow writer, Benson suggests, hopes for critical endorsement, although critical censure proves to be much better for sales.  By the end of the novel Mrs Mantrip's secret shame about her reading preferences is no longer, and she is able to speak frankly about her love for the works of Mr da Vinci, and remove the little curtain that has kept them out of sight in her library.

This book seems to be out of print although copies of the Hogarth Press paperback are available secondhand.


  1. Lovely review, Tanya - I think you're absolutely right that it's slightly sub-Mapp and Lucia, but still very funny and, indeed, fun.

    Rose Macaulay's Keeping Up Appearances would be an excellent companion read to this, if you're interested in lowbrow novels in a middlebrow novel, pseudonyms and all...

  2. Thanks Simon. Keeping Up Appearances is on the Big List to read this year and I'm already looking forward to it greatly ...

  3. Thanks for this excellent review. I will follow up a Hogarth second hand copy now. I devoured all six of the Mapp and Lucia novels, and I'm sure a London based equivalent will be fun. EF Benson seems to like using the name Susan?