E. F. Benson. Paying Guests (1929).
Being a devoted Luciaphil and continual re-reader of Mapp and Lucia and all of the other Lucia chronicles created by Benson, I have always wondered if, during the course of his long and varied writing career, he created any other characters as hilarious and endearing. Certainly not in Dodo (1893), his first novel featuring the beautiful-but-heartless society queen, nor in House of Defense (1906), a melodramatic novel featuring Christian Science. I was about to give up when I found this little volume in one of the hundreds of dry little bookshops for which Oxford is famous.
Paying Guests is, in many ways, a clear predecessor to the Lucia novels; its fictional locale, Bolton Spa, an early sketch for Tilling. Both are based on the town of Rye in Sussex, where Benson lived for many years and was, at one point, mayor. The scene of this novel is a boarding house that is run by Mrs. Oxney and her sister and populated with a collection of mostly middle-aged and eccentric individuals. There is the dominant Col. Chase, who prides himself on his athleticism, as proved by his precious pedometer. There is the newcomer Mrs. Bliss, who believes all ills are false claims to be repelled by the power of Mind, yet is constantly exposed by her own thinly-excused pursuit of health treatments. (Apparently Benson had, by this point, become disillusioned with Christian Science.) And there is the charming Miss Howard, whose amateur musical and artistic efforts add an air of culture to the house and hilarity to the story. Alice Howard is a clear forerunner of Lucia, without her strength of resolve and driving social ambitions. Lucia is the real flower among Benson’s characters, but Alice is at least the bud.
My least favorite aspect of the novel is that the competition for Alice’s affections is waged between the Colonel and a misguided young woman named Florence. The situation is fairly clear from Benson’s many hints and the dénouement.
Conclusion? It doesn’t rate with the Lucias. But Benson’s unforgettable talent for incisively critiquing the self-centered nature of human beings and exposing what is ridiculous in men and women is present. And, in so doing, he makes us laugh.