By Patricia Lightfoot
A walking tour of the little town of Rye in south-east England, not far from Hastings, led us through time to the happy, insulated world of Tilling, which is the setting of a number of entertaining social comedies written in the 1920s and the 1930s by author and thrice mayor of Rye, E.F. Benson. If you were to read just one of the books, choose Mapp and Lucia, in which these two redoubtable foes, Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas (Lucia), first appear together, Lucia having moved from the Elizabethan village of Riseholme to spend the summer in Tilling along with her friend Georgie Pillson. Fierce competition ensues between Mapp and Lucia for the social crown of Tilling, which provides massive entertainment for their friends, with an escalating series of little teas with bridge and sumptuous dinners, a garden fete, a jumble sale and an art exhibition, culminating in the theft of a much-coveted recipe, which began with “the luscious words ‘Take two hen lobsters’,” and an unexpected voyage out to sea on a kitchen table after flood waters broke a bank just outside the town.
The allure of the books so many decades after they were written lies in watching the fortunes of the major characters, so beautifully depicted by E.F. Benson in all their little hypocrisies and frailties, rise and, once the characters have got too comfortable, fall. As observed by a key member of the Tilling social circle, Diva Plaistow, “Two could not reign in Tilling, as everybody could see by this time. ‘All most interesting … Elizabeth’s got hold of Major Benjy for the present, and Lucia’s going to lose Georgie, but then men don’t count for much in Tilling: it’s brains that do it. There’ll be more bridge-parties and teas this winter than ever before. Really, I don’t know which of them I would back.”
One striking aspect of the character’s lives is that although they sometimes complain about their small incomes, none of them have to work, which might have been a useful outlet in some cases, and they all have servants. The importance of “peerless parlourmaid” Foljambe in the life of her employer, Georgie Pillson, is such that when considering spending the summer in Tilling, he thinks “I hope that Foljambe will like Tilling. She will make me miserable if she doesn’t. Tepid water, fluff on my clothes.” Interestingly, the town’s doctor and his wife are not included in this exclusive little social group of those with private incomes, however modest they might be, although the vicar or “padre,” he of the origins in Birmingham and a notable Scottish accent, and his spouse, “wee wifie,” are part of the group. This may reflect the social norms of small-town England between the two world wars or E.F.Benson’s upbringing as the son of a clergyman who became Archbishop of Canterbury.
A walk around Rye allowed us to see certain landmarks beloved of the amateur artists of Tilling, namely, the Norman tower, the Land-gate, the belvedere and the crooked chimney. We also experienced the discomfort of walking on the cobbles on Mermaid Street (Porpoise Street in the books) and understood why the Wyses would prefer to travel distances of a few hundred metres in their Royce.
Given our desire to learn more about the locations in the Mapp and Lucia books, we benefitted enormously from a tour led by the knowledgeable and friendly Secretary of the E.F.Benson Society, which is “dedicated to the appreciation of E.F. Benson and the Benson family.” Lamb House, in which E.F. Benson lived, and which had formerly belonged to Henry James, is clearly the equivalent of Miss Mapp’s “Mallards.” Not only is it is described in the books as a Queen Anne house, but also both houses had the same unusual feature, “the garden room.” As observed by Lucia and Georgie, “Straight in front where the street turned at a right angle, a room with a large bow-window faced them; this, though slightly separate from the house, seemed to belong to it.” It is from this bow window that Miss Mapp keeps a close eye on her friends and neighbours. The garden room had been built by an earlier owner of Lamb House apparently to allow some privacy from the servants, who would carry out dinners and drinks, but would then retreat to the house. I had always found it hard to imagine exactly where this mysterious room was located, not having seen the recent BBC version of Mapp and Lucia, in which the garden room was re-created, and was very happy to be shown a photo, which showed the wall with the bow-window exactly where part of the garden wall is now, that is, at right angles to the house. Alas, the garden room, which was the scene of some thrilling encounters in Tilling, was destroyed in an air raid on August 18, 1940.
“Mallards Cottage,” which Georgie rents for the summer and subsequently leases for 5 years is easily identifiable as Lamb Cottage, given its location at the end of garden wall of Lamb House and its description as “the sweetest little gabled cottage”; however, literary detective work by the E.F. Society has been required to identify other Tilling locations, among them Diva Plaistow’s “Wasters,” Quaint Irene’s “Taormina,” the Wyses’ “Starling Cottage” and “Grebe.” It was most enjoyable to walk around Rye with our guide, hearing why certain houses had been identified as these locations based on the descriptions in the books. The wording on the front of the E.F. Benson Society’s map of Tilling reminds us we must remember that the “the novels are fiction,” but I was disappointed that when we were there, the church tower was closed, so we could not spy on “Mallards” garden as Miss Mapp had done and found the “dear patient” (Lucia) to be energetically skipping and practising callisthenics for those no longer young, even while she was pretending to have influenza to avoid exposure as being unable to speak Italian by the Contessa Amelia Faraglione, sister of Mr. Wyse, the most polite man in Tilling.
Further Rye literary connections were provided by Jeake’s House, the seventeenth-century bed and breakfast we stayed in, which is situated on precipitous, cobbled Mermaid Street just down the street from the likely location of the Wyses’ “Starling Cottage.” The house was owned for a number of years by the American poet Conrad Aiken, whose daughter Joan wrote children’s books, some of which I read and enjoyed as a child and then read to my children, including the series set in the imagined historical period of King James III that starts with the thrilling “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.” I can see that a childhood spent among writers in that rambling house could have inspired such writing. We would have liked to have spent some time beside the fire in the little oak-lined front room of Jeake’s House with the piano and all the books, but, alas, we arrived too late in the day either for that or to see Rye in the evening sunshine, as Georgie and Lucia did on their first day in Tilling/Rye.
Photos: Phil Lightfoot