E. F. Benson is familiar to most of us as the author of the immortal Lucia novels which have been brought to our TV screens every now and then, most memorably in a mid-1980s production starring Prunella Scales. Around the same time, a few of Benson’s other novels were re-issued, among them Paying Guests which has been sitting on my bookshelf ever since, surviving purge after purge. I had not re-read it until now but it lingered strangely in my memory — strangely for what is really a rather muted comedy. Unlike his contemporary Wodehouse, Benson isn’t a laugh-out-loud humorist, nor a florid stylist. This is the humor of understatement, dry as a bone. The omniscient narrator sees everything: actions, motivations, afterthoughts, few of which are especially creditable.
It’s a small world Benson portrays here. We are at “Wentworth,” a guest house in the fictional town of Bolton Spa, which offers baths and nasty-smelling waters to a group of permanent invalids. Wentworth is terribly genteel, recognized not only for the comfort it offers but also for the social standing of its guests. Who — this being a Benson novel — are silly at best, stupendously annoying at worst. But then, look at Mapp and Lucia. What Benson seemed to recognize was that sometimes loathing a character is as satisfying as liking him. In this case the star of the show is the pompous, self-regarding Colonel Chase, a former Indian Army officer who lords it over the other guests at Wentworth, bragging incessantly about his excellent health and bullying them all at the bridge table. One plot development actually does deflate the Colonel’s conceit and this, clearly, is the imbalance in the novel that must be righted. Strangely, the Colonel is more appealing when insufferable.
Other characters: a pair of middle-aged spinsters who become a couple (about one of them Benson says, “Miss Alice Howard was a pathetic person, though she would have been very much surprised if anyone had told her so”) and a Mrs. Bliss who espouses Mental Science, a thin disguise for Christian Science. Probably funnier in 1929.