Life imitating art?

WHEN Henry James first moved to Rye, he urged a friend to visit him in what he called ``the little old brown and red and green and black hill-city'' about two hours southeast of London so she could join him in watching the townsfolk through the windows of his home, Lamb House. Situated at a strategic bend on the way to the parish church, this house is well-placed for genteel espionage, but James made little use of his observations. Rye had to wait for Edward Frederic Benson (1867-1940), a popular light novelist, to exploit the comedy provided by a small community where almost everybody wanted to be somebody.

It so happened that about the time Benson moved into Lamb House, he published a novel called ``Queen Lucia.'' This marked the appearance of Mrs. Emmeline Lucas (otherwise known as Lucia, pronounced in the Italian way), a redoubtable provincial snob and know-all. This was the first of six books devoted to Lucia, but it was not until the fourth that she and Rye came together. Here, in a town Benson called Tilling, Lucia met a sparring partner worthy of her: Mrs. Elizabeth Mapp, another small-town hoddy-doddy and scorer of social points.

By popular shorthand the six books have become known as the Mapp and Lucia novels, and for many years they have been a kind of cult among a group of enthusiasts, including Nancy Mitford and W. H. Auden. There the matter might have rested had a British television company not made a short series of films based on the novels that had such a success in Britain and the United States that interest in E. F. Benson was revived.

Rye soon cornered the Lucia industry and showed that it knew how to laugh at itself, and the center for devotees became the Martello Bookshop on High Street. Here, Tony and Cynthia Reavell preach the gospel according to E. F. Benson, whom they are quite likely to refer to as Fred. There are special Benson displays in the shop, and here the Reavells organized the petition to get a plaque in memory of Fred and his brother, another writer, put on the garden wall of Lamb House.

The Reavells also run the Tilling Society, founded in 1982-83, and compile a most amusing newsletter, sent out to the society's 300 members. They have suggested that the society should not take itself too seriously and keep within its modest aims to organize an annual lunch and exchange news and views about Fred and his sparring ladies. The social events are a great success and attract overseas enthusiasts.

Everything seemed to be going well when it was announced that a rival Benson appreciation society had been formed and was to hold its first annual general meeting in no less a place than the Royal Festival Hall in London. With a retired bishop as president and two luminaries of the Conservative Party as vice-presidents, it seemed the heavy brigade had moved in on Fred and his gimlet eye for the campy and absurd.

The Tilling Society reacted with shock and chagrin, and the newsletter contained hints that a prominent member of the E. F. Benson Society had tried to poach Tilling Society members. Not so, cried the upstarts. Apologize or we sue! The Tilling Society withdrew the remarks unreservedly and relations between the two groups appear to be limited to tell-tale sniffs and raised eyebrows. A get-together is always in the cards but never seems to happen.

Members of both societies with a taste for the ridiculous wonder whether a minor writer such as E. F. Benson needs two sets of groupies and wonder, even as a second series of the Mapp and Lucia films appeared, how much longer such frenzied interest can be maintained.

Every drop of the Lucia and Mapp saga has been extracted from the books and only a couple of questions remain to be answered: Is this spat really a follow-up to the novels, is life following art, and is it true that somehow, behind the discreet shades of Lamb House the master and Fred are sharing a joke about the rival factions and taking bets on which has Lucia for patron and which Miss Mapp?

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