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Old 09-08-2007, 12:55 PM   #1
HarryT
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Post Benson, E.F.: Paying Guests. v1. 8 Sep 07

From an Amazon review:

The Wentworth Hotel in Bolton Spa prides itself on being a better class of establishment than its neighbours. It is detached for one thing, and it has its own tennis-court, in fact the garden at the Wentworth is so big that it can be given the grander name of Grounds. Its residents are largely made up of those unfortunate souls cursed with rheumatism, who drink the foul-tasting waters at the Spa in the belief that it's doing them good.

This is the sort of delightfully bitchy comedy that will be very familier to fans of E F Benson's Lucia novels, in fact a lot of the characters are fairly similar. Miss Howard, with her piano-playing, sketching and cries of "how you all work me!" is a dead-ringer for Lucia, and Colonel Chase with his obsession with healthy outdoor pursuits and exclamations of Hindustani could be a twin of Major Benji. None of this matters to the Benson fan though. Also confined at the Wentworth is Florence Kemp, a young lady who leads a thankless existence dancing attendance on her tyrannical hypocondriac father, and the ascerbic Mrs Holders who takes great delight in beating Colonel Chase at bridge. Into the mix comes Mrs Bliss who believes that all illness is in the Mind (even though she limps heavily and needs a walking-stick to get around, and has a habit of sneaking into taxi-cabs when no one's looking), and begins to turn the place upside down with her revolutionary ideas.

Benson's great gift was that he could write gloriously bitchy comedy without appearing to be too cruel to his characters. We laugh at them, but we are always on their side. This is brought out delightfully in the charity fund-raising concert, when Colonel Chase unwittingly finds himself rising comedy star of the evening when his spine-tingling anecdotes have the reverse effect of reducing his audience to fits of laughter instead. In some authors hands this would be toe-curlingly cruel, but the Colonel triumphs, although somewhat bewildered!

This is gentle English comedy, amiably poking fun at our eccentricities, our fussing and fretting over trivia and ritual, where turning on the central heating a day late can be seen as calamitous, and where Mrs Holders getting mentioned in the bridge column of the "Daily Telegraph" is regarded (briefly) as an A-list celebrity. Mingled in with the comedy is pathos, with Florence desperately trying to rebel against her awful father. Benson's comedy at this stage in his career was refreshingly free of sentiment, that and being free of cruelty as well, is quite a rare achievement.

Enjoy!
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