In search of... Mapp and Lucia in Rye

E F Benson's bickering heroines lived in an East Sussex town suspiciously similar to this one. Jackie Hunter hears the gossip

The names ring a bell, but please remind me who they are.

Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs Emmeline Lucas (known to all as Lucia), a pair of socially ambitious society ladies of a certain age, are the central characters in a sextet of comic novels by E F Benson. The two women were first established separately as comic prima donnas in three novels: Queen Lucia (1920), Miss Mapp (1922) and Lucia in London (1927). E F Benson cleverly brought them together in Mapp and Lucia in 1935. This he did by having Lucia relocate from her original setting of Riseholme (thought to be based on Broadway in Worcestershire) to Tilling. Two subsequent Tilling novels complete the series: Lucia's Progress (1937) and Trouble for Lucia (1939).

Forgive me for asking, but has this got anything to do with Rye?

Everything, my dear. Tilling is the fictional counterpart of Rye, a fortified hilltop town on the East Sussex coast, and E F Benson's home for many years. Geographically and aesthetically, there are more similarities than differences between Rye and Tilling. Rye has a grander history than many English seaside towns: in 1336 it was designated one of the Cinque Ports, an ancient confederation of harbours used for defence by Edward the Confessor, and Elizabeth I stayed in Rye for three nights in 1573, bestowing upon it the title "Rye Royale".

What's so memorable about Mapp and Lucia that they are celebrated in Rye?

It is hard to think of another fictional female double act whose verbal sparring achieves similar heights of archness, or whose cataclysmic feuds are based on disagreements so thrillingly petty.

Lucia is a widow, charming, shrewd and imperious, who inspires devotion and fear in equal parts. A more accomplished social climber than she it is hard to imagine. Mapp is a bossy, controlling spinster who lacks Lucia's poise and allure but remains dogged in her clumsy attempts to trump her rival's achievements. The aim of both is to reign supreme at the helm of Tilling society, and therein lies the humour. Walking round elegant, historic Rye, it is easy to see how the locals might acquire such airs and graces as these two had.

Benson's novels attracted a following among high society in the 1920s, including Nancy Mitford, W H Auden, Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. Thriving in a climate of pretentiousness themselves, they presumably found Lucia's snobbishness and ruthless self-promotion hilarious and even went so far as to profess publicly their adoration: "We will pay anything for Lucia books," they declared.

Right, I've read the books and I'm off to Rye. Where should I start to look for evidence of this devastating duo?

Your best bet is to contact the E F Benson Society in Rye (01797 223114, www.efbenson.co.uk). You can take a guided walk around Mapp and Lucia's Rye with the society's secretary, Allan Downend. Starting at the belvedere on Hilder's Cliff, which looks out over Romney Marsh, you will step into the world of Tilling and see where the characters lived, where they met and shopped, and how Miss Mapp was able to spy on everyone. The walk also visits St Mary's, a large Norman cruciform church, where you'll see a memorial to E F Benson in the choir stalls (he was arthritic, and allowed to sit here beside the altar so he could take communion), and the two vast stained-glass windows donated in his name and that of his brother, Arthur, also a writer. Later you'll see the locations that were used during filming of the classic 1980s TV adaptation of Mapp and Lucia.

How long is the walk?

About an hour and a half, sometimes longer if the group is very inquisitive. There seems to be no detail Allan Downend cannot expand upon about the author and his life, as well as those of his characters. He also talks about real friends and acquaintances of Benson (fondly referred to as Fred) whose idiosyncrasies made their way on to the pages of the Tilling novels. It's informative and highly entertaining, a suitable tribute to a writer who thrived on local gossip.

What are the high points?

A short but steep climb up narrow, cobbled Mermaid Street - Porpoise Street in the Tilling novels - takes you past some stunning medieval and Georgian houses (all of Rye town centre is either Grade-I or Grade-II listed). The 15th-century Mermaid Inn on Porpoise Street was once the haunt of a notorious gang of smugglers.

The walk's final location, Lamb House, is the most significant of all. E F Benson first came to Rye in 1900 as a guest of the American novelist Henry James, who lived in this splendid Queen Anne house until his death in 1916. Both house and town had a profound effect on Benson, who was particularly struck by James's intricate knowledge of his neighbours' daily lives.

Benson became a part-time tenant at Lamb House in 1917. After the First World War he took on the lease and lived here with his brother Arthur. A National Trust plaque on the wall of Lamb House describes it simply as the former home of Henry James. However, Sir Brian Batsford campaigned for recognition of the house's other famous occupant and eventually a plaque was mounted on the garden wall in tribute to E F Benson.

Lamb House appears as "Mallards" in the Tilling books, first as the home of Miss Mapp, later inhabited by Lucia. Its most memorable feature, the garden room from whose large bay window Mapp was able to do most of her spying, sadly was destroyed by a bomb during the war, though the front and main part of the house is intact. Allan Downend carries photographs of the house in its original state, showing just how valuable a vantage point it was for both Mapp and Benson, with its clear view of West Street.

Didn't the people of Rye mind about being the object of Benson's humour?

Fred Benson, for all his love of tittle-tattle, was a kind man and very well liked. (He was made mayor of Rye in 1934 and remained in office for three years.) He did not wish his friends and neighbours to think that he was poking fun at them in his hilarious stories, as is gracefully illustrated in his 1922 preface to Miss Mapp:

"I lingered in the window of the garden-room from which Miss Mapp so often and so ominously looked forth. To the left was the front of her home, straight ahead the steep cobbled way, with a glimpse of the High Street at the end, to the right the crooked chimney and the church. The street was populous with passengers, but search as I might, I could see none who ever so remotely resembled the objects of her vigilance.

E F Benson, Lamb House, Rye."

Benson died in London in 1940 but is buried here in the churchyard at St Mary's, where you can see his gravestone.

How can I join the Rye walk?

The walks take place on Wednesdays on the first and third Saturday of the month from 24 May (to 20 September, except Saturday 6 September). The charge is £4.50 per person. There is no need to book: just turn up at 2pm at Hilder's Cliff belvedere, at the eastern end of the High Street. (Private parties at other times by arrangement.) Lamb House opens on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The E F Benson Society is hosting a Rye Weekend on 12 and 13 July. Contact them for membership details.

Rye is on the A268 and A259, 11 miles east of Hastings. The Rye Heritage Centre is at Strand Quay; you can contact Rye Tourism on 01797 226696.

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