Either way, my grandparents are to thank for my introduction to the English village myth. Grandma N lent me Jan Karon’s Mitford series, which with it’s dear Episcopalian minister and quaint North Carolina village collection of local personalities and overblown small issues is the closest current American approximation of the English archetype; and the Thanksgiving I spent at their apartment in Florida was perfected by the watching of several episodes of Midsomer Murders and Inspector Morse.
In his book Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd relates village-isms to the English love of the miniature: “This desire to miniaturize obsessions, or to reduce “grotesques” in size and scale …Could it possibly to related to the pattern of English detective stories…where evil and murderous wickedness were seen to operate in small and cosy country villages?”
What is it about these English hamlets? A small rustic town in the country, where everyone knows each other’s business and nothing is hidden. It is the ideal location for a tweedy mystery or thriller because it becomes a sort of Garden of Eden for many, a place of simple purity where the rough forces of modernity are kept at bay by surprising marriages, regular gardening, and over-the-fence gossiping. It is exactly this purity, along with the small and intimate cast of villagers privy to each other’s affairs, which make the most delicious and ironic setting for the appearance and unmasking of evil. Hence the “Murder at the Vicarage,” etc.
I am utterly seduced by The Village in literature and film from Meryton in Pride and Prejudice and Emma’s Highbury, to “The Archers,” an ongoing BBC radio-drama about a small English farming community. In small (exclusive) villages, we become the invisible newcomers, welcomed in to observe the way society works here, but never quite “one of them.”
Last week, I began E.F. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia series, hailed as the twentieth century’s Cranford, and applauded the likes of Noel Coward, Nancy Mitford, and W.H. Auden. I finished the first book (of six), Queen Lucia (1920), a few nights ago and happily moved on to the second, Lucia in London (1922). In the small town of Riseholme (“Riz-um” for those humored by the English habit of neglecting the alphabet in unexpected ways), Mrs Emmeline Lucas (Lucia), married to “Peppino” and attended upon by Georgie (a duet-playing, embroidering, toupet-wearing, gossiping sort of man), reigns as the empress of culture and society. If you thought Austen’s Emma was a snob – you have yet to meet Lucia.
She may be the be-all and end-all of Riseholme, but we are permitted to laugh at her. With a deep and abiding love for beloved Dante and his bella lingua, beloved Beethoven and the immortal first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata,” and the garden of her Elizabethan home growing only the flowers mentioned by Shakespeare, Lucia’s affectedness is exasperating and endearing. She and Georgie play at babyish language when they interact with truly repulsive phrases that may be said amongst friends but look awful written down, like “Me vewy sowwy! Oo naughty too hurt Lucia!”
She is the commander of the village, and though her friends may attempt a coup every now and then, they are firmly under her mannered rule.
In Riseholme, things are done just so. Which means that any variation from the ordinary – such as gurus, princess/mediums, and visiting operatic divas – provides an excellent opportunity for speculation and occasion. One enjoys the books because the characters are prone to repetition. They have their “bit,” and we can enjoy the feeling of “knowing” the characters and finding the same joys in the little things as the characters do themselves.
Along with finishing the Mapp & Lucia series (Mapp is Lucia’s dowdy nemesis who, I believe, is soon to enter the books), I look forward to reading one of Beverly Nichols’ gardening books, Down the Garden Path, which is full of village life vignettes, and Flora Thompson’s memoir of her Oxfordshire girlhood, Lark Rise to Candleford.
Having never spent much time in an English village - aside from briefly visiting a farm in Witney, Oxfordshire - I am unable to say how the myth lives up to reality. I'm sure that village life in the Lucian/ Midsomerian/ Cranfordian sense rarely exists anymore, if it ever did. I will have to wait to find out.
“To think,” says Olga the soprano in Queen Lucia, “that I once thought that it was a quiet backwatery place where I could rest and do nothing but study. But it’s a whirl! There’s always something wildly exciting going on. Oh, what fools people are not to take an interest in what they call little things.”
The allure of the English village is precisely that: the little things. Ackroyd writes in Albion, “In England it is believed that to know one’s locale thoroughly is to understand the forces of the world, or even, of the universe itself.”