Mrs Ames by E F Benson

This is the second of the new Bloomsbury Group titles, kindly sent to me by the publisher. I wasn’t sure what to expect; I’ve never read any E F Benson before, but I’ve heard many people wax lyrical about his Mapp and Lucia series, and so I knew he came highly regarded by those of the same literary tastes as me. The Bloomsbury Group books can be, to me, anyway, summed up as light, witty, intelligent books that also have a depth and a heart if you’re prepared to look for it, and Mrs Ames fitted this bill exactly. It captures the narrow and often shallow lives of a group of well to do middle aged neighbours during the Edwardian period, and is very clever and often laugh out loud funny. However, it is also a profoundly sad exploration of how the societal expectations of this era amongst the better classes produced people who lived largely unsatisfying and unfulfilled lives, restricted by convention and moralities they were too afraid to counter. When I closed the pages I wasn’t really sure how I felt; it’s marketed as a cosy read, but it isn’t; the satire might be hilarious, but the unhappy reality of many of the characters’ lives made me feel desperately sorry for them.

The small cast of characters live in Riseborough, a Kent town that appears to be populated largely by wealthy retirees. The society leader is Mrs Ames, a small, toad faced woman, married to a retired solicitor ten years her junior. There is no obvious reason for her social precedence; she is neither beautiful, nor rich, but her commanding personality and natural confidence seem to have beaten all of the other ladies into submission. One of these ladies is Mrs Altham, a merciless gossip who loves nothing better than dissecting the latest comings and goings of her neighbours with her equally nosy husband. Mrs Altham spends her days out in town while her husband spends his at the club; at lunch and in the evening, they relish discussing the news they have separately discovered, and coming to their own, not always flattering, conclusions about the circumstances of their fellow Riseborough residents. The novel opens shortly after Mrs Ames has taken the radical decision to invite wives without husbands and husbands without wives to one of her dinner parties. Riseborough is shocked by this unprecendented departure from convention, and Mr and Mrs Altham feast on the topic for nights on end. However, this daring dinner party gives the opportunity for unattended husbands to meet unattended wives, and there will be unexpected consequences as a result.

Mr Ames, a forty five year old who has retired early and now spends all of his time in the garden, or at the club, thinks that he is perfectly content with his life. However, at his wife’s dinner party, he finds himself attracted by the charms of the local doctor’s wife, Millie Evans, who also happens to be his wife’s cousin by virtue of their joint relation to the local aristocrat, Sir James. He is not a passionate man, and has no desire to leave his wife or enter into a clandestine affair, but he increasingly finds himself drawn to Millie’s house, where he finds sympathy and gentle conversation from the simple minded, beautiful woman who is a world away from his unattractive and socially correct wife. Before long, Mrs Ames gets wind of what is going on, and sets about attempting to win her husband back. However, Mrs Ames doesn’t really understand why Mr Ames is going astray, and her outlandish attempts to attract his attention end up making her a laughing stock. With the situation getting out of hand, Mrs Ames resorts to desperate measures, but will they be enough to restore Riseborough to rights?

E F Benson’s writing is wonderfully funny, and very descriptive; the characters come alive off the pages and the dialogue really sparkles. The plot is thick with the small and seemingly insignificant details of daily life, but which take on an extra measure of excitement and intrigue when they are picked over and elaborated on by the gossipy Riseborough residents. There are awkward dinner parties to be negotiated, costume parties to attend, holidays to decide upon, anti aging measures to try, and suffrage campaigns to launch, none of which can be done without inciting much gossip, envy and one -upmanship. It is an incredibly witty satire of the small lives of people whose world is limited to the narrow confines of a minor county town, but E F Benson’s wit does not disguise the unmistakeable air of melancholy that pervades the novel.

In an age when marriages were built upon the foundations of three week courtships, women were stuck in drawing rooms pouring out tea, and men were nothing but providers, the characters in Mrs Ames reach middle age and find themselves living lives lacking in any real passion or personal fulfillment. Mrs Evans realises she has never fallen truly in love; Mr Ames is made aware of the shallowness of his life; and Mrs Ames wakes up to the fact that the majority of her priorities are utterly meaningless. It made me sad to think that so many of our ancestors must have lived similarly limited lives, trapped by a society whose norms didn’t allow for the freedoms we now take for granted. Most of the characters in Mrs Ames are just going through the motions of life, doing the same things that everyone else does because they are too scared to strike out and live the life they want for themselves; or, even worse, they have no idea of the possibilities that could be out there for them. By the end of the novel, some changes have been made, but the inevitability of things going on much the same made it difficult for me to feel contented when I closed the pages. It is a very funny, and very interesting read, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is merely a light, bright and sparkling satire; it’s much deeper than that, and will give you plenty to think about upon finishing.

26 comments

  1. Great write up — this would definitely be a great novel to read, albeit a tad sad as you mentioned, thinking of family who underwent limited lives because of current society’s particulars and requirements. I just read and reviewed The House of Mirth, and was struck by the same types of norms. Really makes you think and welcome current day liberties.

    1. Thank you! It is a very interesting and thought provoking novel that also manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, so it comes highly recommended from me! I think your comparison with Edith Wharton is an excellent one – the characters in The House of Mirth are so restricted and hemmed in by what their ‘set’ tells them they can and cannot do, and it’s terribly sad to think that so many people lived desperately unhappy lives because of fear of disapproval from their friends and family. While I think there are some people still living by those rules today, thankfully there is much more flexibility and freedom for us in how we choose to live our lives, which I am incredibly thankful for.

  2. Gosh, this does sound sad. It’s interesting how a very funny book can sound utterly grim when you describe it, and still be funny to read.

    1. Ha! Yes, I know! I have made it sound a bit more depressing than it is…it’s difficult to describe – it’s so satirical and witty, you can’t help but laugh even though you feel desperately sorry for the characters!

  3. I like the sound of this! The short Edwardian period of history fascinates me and I’m unfamiliar with E F Benson. That lime green cover is striking, too.

    1. Nicola, I think you would really enjoy this one. I am now anxious to read the Mapp and Lucia novels as well, which I gather are much more lighthearted. The cover is lovely – all of the Bloomsbury novels are, actually – they look delicious on my bookshelf, like a stick of rock!

  4. Like you, I had only heard of EF Benson in relation to his Mapp & Lucia series. I actually have the first book in the series and have been waiting for just the right time to read it… I suspect based on your review of this other work that I will like Benson quite a lot!

  5. For all the praise I’ve heard of E.F. Benson, I’ve never read anything by him though the Mapp and Lucia books are on my “To Read One Day But No Rush” list. Mrs Ames, on the other hand, has earned itself a place on the proper TBR list. I had actually be avoiding it because I thought it sounded too light with no real discernible characteristics. This is one of those cases where I’m happy to be wrong!

    I found your thoughts on the era rather interesting: the characters in Mrs Ames reach middle age and find themselves living lives lacking in any real passion or personal fulfillment. Honestly, I’m not sure much has changed in the way of passion or fulfillment. We, women in particular, certainly have more freedoms but liberation doesn’t seem to have lessened the human tendency towards depression and boredom. How much of such behaviour has to do with circumstances and how much with human nature?

    1. I’m glad this has earned a place on the proper TBR list! I think you’d really enjoy it – it’s definitely not a ‘too light’ read – the depth is there if you’re willing to find it. Interesting thoughts on how not much has changed. I see your point entirely, though I think perhaps our depression and boredom comes from the fact that we know exactly how much is out there for us, and what we could be capable of, and the fact that our lives don’t live up to all of these illustrious possbilities is what causes us distress. Whereas, in Mrs Ames, I think most of the characters are miserable because they never had any dreams or thought outside of what society expected, and when they reach middle age, they suddenly realise that what they thought was love, and what they thought was happiness, is actually nothing but being used to someone, and being comfortable. Whereas we are given too many choices, they were given too few, and by the time they realised they HAD choices, it was too late to act upon for risk of being ostracised from their families and friendship groups.

      I think it’s difficult for humans to be truly happy, no matter what times we live in. Our souls desire perfection and this earth just can’t deliver it, I’m afraid!

  6. Like Claire, I found myself wondering how much we have really changed. We have more opportunities and more choices, especially as women, but with men as well, than our counterparts in history and the class barriers are not as defined, though I would like to suggest they still exist. I often come upon people who are shallow in other ways; what car they drive, the square footage of their homes, labels on purses and shoes and hair products, and I wonder how content they really are when more isn’t enough and they are depressed and unhappy. Don’t get me wrong, I love nice things and a nice house as well as anybody, and I am sure there are those who think me shallow as well. You really got me to thinking on this as you talked about this book. I think a major difference is that we can move on, move out, divorce, redefine ourselves, return to school, change careers, have careers, which was almost unheard of in Edwardian times.

    I also think we have taken gossip to new levels unimaginable in the time of Mrs. Ames, as evidenced by news reports and gossip type shows and what goes out on the internet.

    Thank you, Rachel, for the challenge to read what appears to be humorous or witty or light and to dig deeper into the story at hand.

    1. Oh, yes, Penny – materialism and snobbery and one upmanship definitely still exist – that makes me really sad too. I think the more people possess, the more they want, and the cycle continues – happiness is very difficult to attain when everything and everyone is telling you that you must have more, you must have this, you must do this, otherwise your life is meaningless. We are slowly degenerating into a world of people who don’t understand how to attain happiness, because happiness is about acquiring things rather than acquiring the values that create the truly valuable things in life, such as love, friendship, kindness, and generosity.

      Today, as you say, we have the choice our forefathers didn’t to get divorced, to live together outside marriage, to move away from our families, to change careers, to pursue education, to travel, to express ourselves in any that we choose – and this is a real benefit and a liberation we should be thankful for. However, as I said to Claire, because we have all this choice, it has also been a negative progress in some cases, as the sheer amount of choice we have makes it difficult to decide upon a course and stick to it, for fear of missing out on what else could be out there for us. It’s tough, this life!

      Oh, yes, of course – gossip is something that has really got out of hand – just like celebrity culture. It saddens me – I never know who anyone is in these glossy magazines, which I suppose is a good thing!

      You’re welcome, Penny, and thank you for yet another thoughtful, insightful and generous comment!

  7. Lovely review Rachel,I have only just started EF Benson and started with the first in the Mapp and Lucia series which I really enjoyed. I have this on the TBR but am having a little Bloomsbury break at the moment, though ‘Let’s Kill Uncle’ does appeal now and again as it sounds like a dark little gem. I still havent gotten through the first lot!

    1. Thanks Simon! You’re too kind to me! Mapp and Lucia sound right up my street and one day I will get around to them, especially as I now know how good E F Benson’s writing is! Le’ts Kill Uncle does sound fantastic and very unusual – I hope to get to it before I move!

  8. I’m a teeny bit jealous that you got sent the book while I’ve just ordered it!🙂 I’m looking forward to reading it. I also ordered Let’s Kill Uncle. But after this review, Mrs. Ames continues to look very promising.

    1. Oh I’m sorry, Mae! But I’m sure you will find it completely worth it! I haven’t read Let’s Kill Uncle yet but I am looking forward to it. I hope you like Mrs Ames as much as me!🙂

  9. Lovely review. Mapp & Lucia are moving up my TBR soon and this one sounds interesting.

    p.s. Gorgeous new blog design!

    1. Thanks Polly! I’m glad you like the new look🙂

      This is a very interesting book – if you like Mapp and Lucia then you should give this a go afterwards.

  10. You HAVE to read Mapp and Lucia. I have read the entire series countless times and the title book dozens and dozens – it’s like a warm blanket, very, very funny and brilliantly observed. Benson is clever in making you root for the most loathesome characters. Your observations about Mrs Ames are very interesting.

    1. Thanks Sally – now I know I enjoy Benson’s writing style I am going to take your advice and read Mapp and Lucia! It might take me a while to get around to them but I will definitely seek them out one day!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s