Mrs. Ames is the second book by E.F. Benson that I’ve read; a couple years ago I read his Queen Lucia and enjoyed it quite a lot (I received Mrs. Ames through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program). Mrs. Ames, published in 1912, covers much the same territory as Queen Lucia, published 8 years later. Both books are about small-town English life among the leisured classes. They are about gossip, dinner parties, and social rivalry. Neither book delves into anything terribly deep, dramatic, or tragic. In both books Benson shows affection for his pampered, petty characters, while at the same time making it clear just how absurd they are.
Queen Lucia is about Lucia’s struggle to maintain her control over the local social scene, and Mrs. Ames finds herself doing the exact same thing. The threat to Mrs. Ames takes a while to emerge, but it turns out to be Mrs. Evans, the doctor’s wife, who is relatively new to town. She has ideas for entertainments — masked costume parties! — that the town has never seen before. She also, more ominously, begins to spend more and more time with Mr. Ames, and the two of them begin a flirtation. It is entirely innocent to begin with, but over the course of the book grows increasingly serious.
Mrs. Ames sees what is going on and does her best to win her husband’s attention back, although, at the same time, she begins to wonder just how happy she is in her marriage. Her attempts to win back her husband’s affections provide some of the book’s uncomfortable comedy: she tries a wrinkle cream and colors her hair to get rid of the gray, but, sadly, her husband doesn’t notice and the women think she looks odd and see right through her attempts to regain youthfulness. It’s kind of pathetic, and yet perfectly understandable and sad.
In an effort to regain her place at the center of society that Mrs. Evans took away with her costume party, Mrs. Ames takes up the cause of women’s suffrage. Here’s where the book gets particularly interesting, and where the comic tone wavers a bit. Mrs. Ames began not caring at all about votes for women, only wanting to make a splash and force people to choose sides, but over time she finds she is genuinely concerned. The suffragist movement speaks to her vague feelings of dissatisfaction with her life and her marriage, and she sees that having greater independence and political involvement could bring a new meaning to life.
This part of the story climaxes in a scene where Mrs. Ames is forced to choose between, on the one hand, her loyalty to her husband and the codes of politeness she has spent her whole life blindly following, and, on the other, her new-found belief in votes for women. Her husband has invited a local politician to dinner, the very same man, unfortunately, that the suffragist group has decided to heckle during his speech later that day.
How Mrs. Ames resolves this dilemma and whether her unhappiness and her husband’s love affair will rip apart the social order provide the drama for the rest of the novel. I enjoyed the book very much, although it’s the book’s unevenness of tone that, strangely, made me like it: I found it fascinating that Benson was willing to take the story in a darker direction than anything in Queen Lucia, even if it disrupted the tone of light comedy established earlier in the book. The novel’s portrayal of women’s fight for the vote is mixed, but Benson does write some moving passages about Mrs. Ames’s self-awakening, and he is far from dismissive of her unhappiness. So, while this may not be a brilliant novel, it’s an entertaining, funny one that offers much that’s serious to think about.