At first I found the Mapp and Lucia books disappointing, if not tarsome. They seemed like pale watercolours when compared to the vivid and breezy strokes of Wodehouse's Wooster, so I confess that the popularity of Benson's two gently warring ladies was a mystery.
Perseverance however paid off and addiction followed. The rivalry between Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) is very subtle and the eccentricities of the characters who encircle them seem at first trite, but then become delicious, even outrageous, given the time in which the books were published.
In this book, Mapp and Lucia, each being central to the social lives of their respective villages (Tilling and Riseholme) are thrust together when Lucia rents Mapp's house for a few weeks in summer, while Mapp herself rents a neighbour's smaller house so that she can make a little money, as do several other residents who form a chain of rental possession for a few weeks each year.
Lucia's swift popularity with the locals chafes Mapp considerably and she attempts to undermine her at every opportunity. Lucia rises to the challenge and thus begins a genteel savagery between them which galvanises the locals and moves the tide of approval from one to the other, depending on the nature of the skirmish. Each lady gets her come-uppance at various points along the way, yet both always emerge eager for their next polite duel.
But this and the others books in the series are not simply tales of two ladies out-snobbing each other - there is much warmth and vulnerability woven into their characters, despite their desire for social prominence in their small world. Moreover, the books give a glimpse back in time to a pre-WWII era, when shopping for fresh produce was a daily necessity, small villages had their own railway stations and domestic staff were still commonplace for those who could afford them.
Many of the other main characters are comically surreal; the Birmingham vicar with a medieval cod-Scots accent; the wealthy Susan who is never seen without her sable and Rolls Royce; plump Diva and her forthright gossip; `Quaint Irene' and her lesbianism; and Lucia's closest companion, the devoted, toupee-wearing Georgie Pillson, whose devotion is not beyond slipping when Lucia gets too high-handed.
It's a pity that Benson didn't write more Mapp and Lucia books, but the ones we have are fully deserving of their long-standing affection in English comic literature.