The delight of E. F. Benson's `Mapp & Lucia' series of stories is in their depiction of the rivalry that exists between the two main characters which is played out with genteel ruthlessness to the admiration and glee of the supporting characters, who are fellow residents of the respectable and polite little town of Tilling in Sussex. The stories are, each of them, a hilarious social commentary on the eccentricities of behaviour and manners that we are led to believe existed amongst those who enjoyed life at the mid to upper middle-class level during the 1920's and early 1930's. The petty snobberies, jealousies, social gaffes and, in some cases, plainly comic mannerisms of the characters come across splendidly to the reader, eased on their way by Benson's cleverly crafted underwritten style. This then, is the benchmark by which we have to judge the success or otherwise of any addition to the series by other authors years after Benson's death.
Tom Holt wrote two `Mapp & Lucia' stories - `Lucia Triumphant' and `Lucia in Wartime', and I think he came close to recapturing the atmosphere of Benson's originals. Benson may have baulked at introducing real-life, world-renowned characters into the lives of the familiar residents of Tilling, as Holt does at the end of `Lucia in Wartime', (I won't give the game away for those still to read the book), but for the most part Holt's two books succeed because, as author, he recognises one thing; the disasters, disappointments, embarrassments and significant events that the Tilling residents experience in life almost always revolve around or stem from something perfectly simple. It might be a dress-pattern, a recipe for a dinner dish, the daily shop, the town's annual art exhibition, the death of a budgerigar, even in one case the death of one of the early characters...anything. Even when the sea flooded the local marshes resulting in the two principal characters, Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas, floating off into the Channel on an upturned table and being presumed drowned for months on end by the rest of the townsfolk, the spell of simplicity remained unbroken. After all, floods do sometimes happen, and out of this one a host of compelling storylines concerning other characters naturally developed.
It is this simplicity that I found largely missing in Guy Fraser-Sampson's `Lucia on Holiday'. Instead of the tale developing naturally from simple events - a thing that is, I suppose, more difficult for a writer to achieve convincingly than us readers might expect - I felt the author was too obviously looking for bigger issues to hang the story upon.
When Lucia, (now Emmeline Pillson), and her husband, Georgie arrange a holiday in Italy, taking in Venice then settling in a hotel at Bellagio on the shore of Lake Como, fate conspires that the less affluent Mapp-Flints, (Elizabeth Mapp and her husband Major Benjamin Flint) are given the means to take their holiday at the same exotic location in the same hotel and in the process also cause severe damage to the enormous and priceless Bugatti Type 41 that Major Flint drives them through Europe in to get there. By coincidence Algernon and Susan Wyse turn up at the hotel, together with his sister Amelia, Contessa di Faraglione. Olga Bracely plays a large part in events and Poppy, Duchess of Sheffield, makes a few appearances to plague Georgie with her attraction to men with beards. Unfortunately, the remaining characters that we are so familiar with, and indeed Tilling itself, only make a very brief appearance at the start of the book, the bulk of the story being set in Italy. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that in itself. The planning of the story is the author's business, not mine. Only, I just felt as I read further into the book that Benson's original template had been abandoned and the importance of characters such as Diva Plaistow, Quaint Irene and the Reverend Kenneth Bartlett and his wife Evie overlooked. And, that is to say nothing of the domestic staff; Cadman, Foljambe, Grosvenor, Withers etc. - A prime example of not realizing what you have until it's not there.
As for the characters that are there, how faithfully do they resemble their portrayal in Benson's original stories? That is a difficult question to answer. I suppose each reader will have to make their own judgement about it. For what my opinion is worth, there were a few moments when I thought; yes, spot on, that is just what Benson would have made him/her say or how they would have behaved. But they were rare moments. More generally, I had the feeling that these people were impersonating old friends; some of the mannerisms and stock-phrases being overdone and occasionally Mr Fraser-Sampson gets it wrong for me completely. Would Benson ever have allowed Georgie to shout "You stupid woman!" at Lucia, then seize her arm and throw her back on to the sofa?
More successful, I think, is the presentation of Olga Bracely and her times with Georgie, as she introduces him to her society friends. The Olga Bracely in this book is pretty much the Olga Bracely of the Benson books. I think the reason for this is that she is a forthright, larger than life person by nature anyway, and as a character exists for the others to react to, rather than interact with; - yes, even Georgie included. Olga's whole life is a performance of one sort or another and she needs no great subtlety of depiction to make her a believable person.
As for the other main characters' antics here, in the main, I did not find them so believable. The rivalry between Mapp and Lucia exists as much as ever in `Lucia on Holiday' but somehow seems of secondary importance to bigger events and questions going on elsewhere in the book: - Events which, here too, include a couple of real-life characters, (one of which I admit to never having heard of before).
It is obvious that Mr Fraser-Sampson put a lot of work and research into `Lucia on Holiday', and I applaud his bravery in putting himself in the spotlight before his fellow Mapp and Lucia enthusiasts by writing it. It is by no means a badly written book. It just did not quite work for me. However, we followers of Mapp and Lucia are a diverse bunch and I expect opinions will vary. What we can all be grateful for is that the adventures of our heroes from Tilling are still being written about in 2012.