E. F. Benson Fine Feathers, selected by Jack Adrian (1994).
'Dear Mrs Brick, she said. 'How perfectly delightful of you to dispense with the formality of an invitation and look in on us... You will find ever so many of your friends here.' ('Dodo and the Brick').
This is a collection of short stories by E. F. Benson, author of the Mapp and Lucia series of books. There is even a Mapp story in here ('The Male Impersonator'), which delivers the customary comeuppance to the social-climbing Miss Mapp. The collection is divided, sort of, into genres. I say 'sort of', since so many of the stories could really be classed as 'society stories', but we also get 'sardonic stories' (another classification which could apply overall), the whimsically entitled 'crank stories', some sporting stories ("playing golf with phenomenal inability... this ruiner of gutta-percha") and a few ghostly offerings. There is much to love here for Benson fans and it is hard to pick a favourite. I loved 'Professor Burnaby's Discovery' - about an Egyptologist taken for a ride by a canny hotelier with an eye for faking antiquities.
In 'Miss Maria's Romance', Benson's acute eye for the ridiculous runs riot:
Meantime, like the poet, Miss Jane had passed through the town and out of the street, in something resembling a tumult of soul. The sun of romance had shone on the red-brick house, she was invigorated by his rays; snails, a bicycle, ordering dinner, and washing up a set of Crown Derby had hitherto been provender sufficient for her psychine needs, but now her capacity for spiritual adventure had suddenly been enlarged.
Here Miss Mapp is painting:
She was intending to be very bold over this, following the method which Mr Sargent practised with such satisfactory results, namely of painting not what she knew was there but what her eye beheld, and there was no doubt whatever that the broad waters of the high tide, though actually grey and muddy, appeared to be as blue as the sky which they reflected. So, with a fierce glow of courage she filled her broad brush with the same strong solution of cobalt as she had used for the sky, and unhesitatingly applied it.
There are a number of stories based on certain types of mistaken identities causing social disaster (familiar to readers of the Mapp and Lucia stories) and other stories warning of the perils of daring to step out of your given social level and the perils of social climbing. The story in which Mrs Ames appears (the title story 'Fine Feathers') is one of these - a Mrs Altham gets her comeuppance (money can never buy class). Benson's description of Mrs Altham is one of my favourites (and a classical allusion to boot):
...Mrs Altham was of sterner stuff; there was something of the House of Atreus about her.
Benson is the master of the one-sentence summary which makes his characters shine:
He was a large man, pleasantly furnished with flesh, and filled a chair beautifully.
He had just gone through the Moral Sciences Tripos at Cambridge, in which he had taken a first. But his philosophy lay far deeper than this, for a Tripos may be only a sort of fungus-growth on a man...
There is no question that Benson is best known as the cruel bubble-burster of social climbers. At this he is arch and sardonic and quite brilliant. One story was quite different from the stereotypical Benson, namely 'My Friend the Murderer' about the relationship (?) between the narrator and the classically handsome Greco-Albanian fisherman Yanni. This story really demonstrates Benson's range and would certainly make me curious to track down some of his less 'social stories' material.
Favourite word: "chaffening".
Typo!: Alwyn for Aylwin, p.258
If you liked this... I shall bump Benson's Mrs Ames up the TBR and start hunting down the first volume of short stories, Desirable Residences. Oh, and some more 'Dodo' stories.