|Note: This article was first written for and published by the online Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society in 2003. It’s no longer in the archive there, so I’m reposting it here, with photos from the trip described below.|
Although Edward Frederick (E.F.) Benson wrote over 70 novels as well as a number of biographies, ghost stories, and other works of fiction and non-fiction, he is best remembered today for his six novels chronicling the social squabbles and adventures of two middle-aged ladies, Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas (known as “Lucia” to her friends).
Lucia first appears in Queen Lucia (1920) as the autocratic but benevolent ruler of her small social circle in the village of Riseholme, a lady of artistic pretensions who affects to speak Italian when she knows but a few phrases, and plays only the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata because it is the slowest and easiest. Mapp makes her appearance in Miss Mapp (1922) while spying on her neighbors from behind the curtains of her garden-room window. “Anger and the gravest suspicions about everybody had kept her young and on the boil,” Benson introduces her. Like Lucia, Mapp leads her own social circle in the town of Tilling.
The two ladies meet in armed combat for social supremacy in Mapp and Lucia (1931), when the recently widowed Lucia comes to Tilling, and the battle rages through two subsequent novels. Joining Mapp and Lucia in their ongoing war are a collection of delightfully idiosyncratic neighbors: fussy and feminine Georgie Pillson; Mrs. Wyse, who wears her fur coat even on warm days and takes her Rolls Royce into the most narrow and unnavigable streets, and Mr. Wyse, her antiquary husband; gender-bending artist, “Quaint” Irene Coles; blustering Major Benjy; the Reverend Kenneth Bartlett, who affects a Scottish accent even though he is not a Scotsman, and his mousy wife Evie. As a writer of the foibles of the upper classes in England between the two world wars, Benson’s work can be compared to P.G. Wodehouse’s, if Wodehouse had focused more attention Bertie Wooster’s aunts. Like Aunt Agatha’s zeal in stealing a silver cow creamer, the quarrels that arise in Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels involve trivial objects and circumstances that take on ridiculously exaggerated importance; for example, one of the fiercest battles between the ladies concerns a recipe for lobster a la Riseholme.
Tilling, which provides the setting for four of these novels, was inspired by the real-life town of Rye on the East Sussex coast. Rye was Benson’s home from 1916 until his death in 1940. He was Mayor there during the 1930s, as Lucia became in Lucia’s Progress. Lamb House, where Benson lived (and Henry James before him), is the “Mallards” of the novels, where Mapp and Lucia each in turn made their home.
Benson described the town in 1922:
“There is not in all of England a town so blatantly picturesque as Tilling, nor one, for the lover of level marshland, of tall reedy dykes, of enormous sunsets and rims of blue sea on the horizon, with so fortunate an environment. The hill on which it is built rises steeply from the level land, and, crowned by the great grave church so conveniently close to Miss Mapp’s residence, positively consists of quaint corners, rough-cast and timber cottages, and mellow Georgian fronts.”
—Miss Mapp, Chapter 2
It remains very much the same 80 years later. When I visited in May of 2002 with my friend and fellow Luciaphile, Susan, we found Rye still a beautiful little town of steep cobblestone lanes and black-and-white houses, some of which date back to the 15th century.
Susan and I had gone to Rye in quest of Mapp and Lucia’s Tilling. Both of us had been fans of Benson’s novels for many years, and were especially intrigued by the British ITV production of Mapp & Lucia, which was filmed in Rye in the mid-1980s.
The wonderful thing about visiting Rye after reading Benson’s novels is that the town is already familiar; his descriptions are so detailed that you feel as if you’ve been there before and know it well even at your first visit. Standing in front of Lamb House, we easily identified Georgie Pillson’s cottage next door, and the homes of Major Benjy and Captain Puffin, facing each other on either side of the slope of West St. below. Another street plunging sharply downhill to the left, while named Mermaid St. in real life, was immediately recognized as Benson’s Porpoise St., where the Wyses had their Tudor home.
The next morning, we visited St Mary’s, the “great grave church” that sits at the top of the hill Rye is built on. We went up into the tower, squeezing our way along a narrow passage of a clerestory–tourists are kept from falling by a barrier of netted wire fixed against the ancient stonework–and then climbing up through the bell chambers on wooden stairs that might almost be called a ladder. It’s a very steep climb; Miss Mapp is supposed to have carried a painting and an easel up and down these stairs, but I don’t see how she could have done it.
Atop the tower, we found a spectacular view, overlooking not only the town, but Romney Marsh to the northeast, Camber Castle to the south, and the English Channel eastward in the distance.
In Mapp and Lucia, Mapp spies on Lucia from the top of the church tower and sees her skipping around the walled “secret” garden behind Lamb House, after Lucia had claimed to be bedridden with influenza to avoid meeting Mr. Wyse’s Italian-speaking sister, the Countess Faraglione. Susan and I quickly determined that it wasn’t possible to see into the garden at all without, perhaps, climbing up onto the parapet. We were not willing to go this far in our experiment, but we agreed that we couldn’t put it past Mapp in her eagerness to expose her rival!
In the marshlands beyond the town, we noted a solitary house–a white square by a cluster of trees–and decided it must be Grebe, the house Lucia lived in before she purchased Mallards. We learned later that afternoon we were wrong.
That afternoon, we went to the lookout point at the end of the High Street, which Benson dedicated while he was mayor, to meet Allan Downend, president of the E.F. Benson Society. The Society offers a “Mapp & Lucia” tour that features real-life settings Benson was familiar with, locations that were used in the ITV series, and possible locations of the homes of characters in the novels. Some detective work is required. For example, there are two possible contenders for the Wyse home–handsome black-beamed Tudor houses on either side of Mermaid St.–and persuasive arguments can be made in favor of each. Diva Plaistow’s residence is also difficult to pin down; while Benson always places it on the High Street, it seems to move from novel to novel. Mr. Downend points out the most likely candidate, a house with blue bay windows, where Diva could have sat to look over the comings and goings on the street below while working on her latest piece of creative dress.
Most of the filming of the ITV series was done around the church square, and makes no geographical sense if you know where the actors are in contrast to where they’re supposed to be: people turn left to go to Mallards, when the house is down the lane to the right; Quaint Irene paints the front of her house near the bottom of West St., when the building she’s painting is actually the old water tower in the churchyard. But the square is one of the prettiest and most carefully preserved parts of Rye, so it was no surprise that it was used so often.
The house that stood in for Mallards in the series is obviously not Lamb House, since it is a pink stucco villa in the middle of a level street and has its entrance in a side-alley, while Lamb House is a red-brick, early Georgian building with an imposing black door that opens directly out onto the top of a steep, downward sloping street. The televised Mallards is on Watchbell St., behind Lamb House, and backs on its garden.
Lamb House does not make an appearance in the series. While the house with the crooked chimney, next to Mallards, is mentioned frequently as Georgie’s cottage (the two are not the same in the books, nor in Rye), it only appears in a sketch, accurately rendered, over Lucia’s mantelpiece.
The tour ended at Lamb House. Since this house was also Henry James’ final home, there is a great deal of information about him to be found here, but plenty for the edification of the Benson fan as well. The ground-floor rooms are open to the public–the dining room, an oak-paneled parlor, and the “telephone” room. The “telephone” room is larger than imagined; the name itself suggests a phone-cabinet sized closet, and when Lucia places Mapp’s out-of-tune piano there when she rents the house in Mapp and Lucia, the piano is said to fill the room, “…but it was still possible to telephone if you went in sideways.” When we stood in the room, which is at least 10 foot square, Susan and I found it hard to believe that Lucia would have had trouble squeezing around any piano smaller than a concert grand.
When we finished exploring the rooms, we went out through the french windows in dining room into the high-walled garden, which is also larger than imagined. In Benson’s day, there was a garden room, separate from the house and set at a right angle to it; the front window was said to command a view of the lane to the church square and West St. down its length.
“There was a little that concerned the social movements of Tilling that could not be proved, or at least reasonably conjectured, from Miss Mapp’s eyrie”
—Miss Mapp, Chapter 1
The garden room was destroyed during an air raid in World War II, but the space where it used to be is outlined by bricks in the grass; old photos and paintings of it are in the house, and there is a small model in the dining room.
Early the next morning, before we left Rye, I walked out to the house that Mr. Downend claimed was the basis for Grebe, Playden Cottage. This is not the white house Susan and I had observed. Grebe is described as being half a mile outside of Rye; across the road is a river contained by a high bank, and the marshes lie beyond. So much might apply to either house, but Grebe is also described as sitting close against a cliff, part of the coastline before the marshes were reclaimed from the sea. The land does indeed rise sharply behind Playden Cottage, while our choice was out on the flat marshlands on the other side of town. However, Playden Cottage is also well up on a hillside.
In Mapp and Lucia, the bank of the river collapses and Grebe is flooded. Mapp, intent on stealing Lucia’s recipe for lobster a la Riseholme, is trapped in the kitchen and both ladies are swept out to sea on an upturned kitchen table, to be eventually rescued by an Italian fishing trawler. While there is a high-banked river across the road from Playden Cottage, only very deep water could have flooded the house and carried the ladies away.
So it seems that, although some poetic license has been taken to further various plot points, Benson’s Tilling is in general an accurate reflection of Rye. What is most remarkable, however, is that so much of the town as it was in the 1920s and ‘30s remains intact today. We left feeling as we had really visited Tilling, and had walked almost in Miss Mapp’s footsteps.
Queen Lucia, 1920
Miss Mapp, 1922
Lucia in London, 1927
The Male Impersonator (a short story featuring Miss Mapp), 1929
Mapp and Lucia, 1932
Lucia’s Progress (also published as The Worshipful Lucia), 1935
Trouble for Lucia, 1939
For more information about the E.F Benson Society, the Mapp & Lucia tour, and Benson’s Tilling, visit https://www.efbensonsociety.org/walks/