Friday, March 6, 2009

The Real Housewives of Riseholme and Tilling


Last night, I indulged in a bit of naughty television -- three back-to-back episodes of "The Real Housewives of New York City."  Naughty because I enjoy it for the most ungentlewomanly of reasons:  I can't take my eyes off those (mostly) desperate women and their constant jockeying for attention, status and camera time. I'm sure most people who watch it are the same as me. It's car-crash television. It's schadenfreude.  It's a cheap way to feel better about oneself, but when I turn it off, I am left with a slightly regretful aftertaste.

I'd like to suggest a thoroughly satisfying alternative -- the "Lucia" novels by E. F. Benson.  Ten years ago, my dear friend Alek turned me onto them and I am still trying to repay the favor.

 "We will do anything for Lucia books!" was the famous plea from Noel Coward, Nancy Mitford and W. H. Auden. Once you read them, you understand why. I love them so much that if I was an unbridled eccentric, I would make them a requirement for friendship.

Lucia and her mortal enemy, Miss Mapp, are not only as pretentious, spiteful and backstabbing as their modern-day Bravo counterparts, they are infinitely more so. The difference is that whereas Bravo wastes no opportunity in making its stars appear as pathetic as possible, Benson mocks the sin but not the sinner and so we end up loving Lucia and Miss Mapp in spite of everything.  

There's recently widowed Lucia, with her snobbery, her airs, and her supposed mastery of Italian, which just consists of adding "ino" to every other word. And there's the spinster Miss Mapp, overflowing with insincerity, always on the lookout for anyone who transgresses the bounds of her tightly controlled world of manners and exemplary behavior.  
  
The two women don't meet until the fourth book, but you can read it first if you like. From the moment they set eyes on each other, it's a feverish struggle for social dominance. Their battles take place in the rarefied worlds of garden parties, fetes and bridge evenings, and wit and wiles are their weapons.  

I promise, you'll laugh your derriere off, with no residue of guilt afterwards.

(My patron saint, E. F. Benson, 1867-1940)

17 comments:

Mrs. Blandings said...

Lisa - your recommendation was clearly enough, but when you added Mitford to the mix I was sunk. When will I ever get to the Churchill biography languishing on the bedside table?

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Mrs. Blandings: Read the Churchill, too! Is it the Manchester biography? "The Last Lion"? Just reading the chapter-long introduction to that book had me sobbing... I'm a HUGE "Sir Winnie" fan.

What can one do? It's a quandary. Wake up before the larks? Go to bed after the owls? There are so many good books out there!! If you figure it out, tell me!

MySpecialStash said...

Wow, you've given us no choice but to read all four! I can't wait until I have the leisure of devouring this series slowly. Sounds like a perfect beach read!

I recently posted on my own blog about gardening ensembles, which was largely inspired by an image you posted of Rhoda Birley a while ago. Feel free to check out my blog if you feel so inclined!

catbird said...

ooh exciting. (it sort of sounds like he original Ab Fab.)

Scott Fazzini said...

"It's a cheap way to feel better about oneself, but when I turn it off, I am left with a slightly regretful aftertaste." - L.B.G.

I'm in the middle of a biography on Elsie de Wolfe, but would gladly stop to read anything that you recommend.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

My Special Stash: There's six, actually, so you're even luckier! Books five and six continue the Mapp/Lucia rivalry...

Scott Fazzini: Of course you're reading about De Wolfe. I read a great bio a few years ago, "Ladies and Not So Gentle Women" about her, Bessie Marbury, Anne Morgan and Anne Vanderbilt. It was fab. Which one are you reading?

Scott Fazzini said...

Elsie de Wolfe : A Life in High Style : The Elegant Life and Remarkable Career of Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl

Side note: You have inspired me to research the Bloomsbury Group - I'm astonished and infatuated.

little augury said...

These are truly great! my friend SP that I dedicate my blog to introduced me to Mapp and Lucia years ago too. bella bella! I love the Brits when it comes to literature. I must say too that Prunella & Geraldine do a great job with them too. btw-I saW -a room of their own-exhibit at Duke's Nasher in Durham this week- I am loaded with lit on the group and ir was so wonderful to see the work right under my nose. I would love to do a post about them- perhaps I could interview you along with it on your take- as always enjoying your posts. g.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Little Augury: Absolutely! How amazing you saw some of their work. I saw an exhibit of the art and furnishings of the Omega Group at a museum in LA a few years ago...it was mind-blowing.

Lee said...

Have I been hiding under a rock? How come I haven't heard of Mapp & Lucia before?!? Perhaps I should classify myself as an 'ignorant Australian'. Thank you so much for the recommendation - I can't wait to sink my teeth into them. Now please excuse me while I take myself off to the book store.

pve design said...

A part of me wants to come like a mad woman - knock and your door and demand you give me all your books. Sad part is, I know you would play nice, and share them with me and even offer me a cup of warm tea in one of those clever mugs.

mary said...

Thanks for the hot tips.....and your readers all added to the "must reads" as well. Summer reading list is launched !

Jill said...

Thanks so much for the Lucia recommendation.

I've always wondered...aren't these "housewives" aware that Bravo makes them look like idiots? Are they such masochists or celebrity hounds that they just don't care? A friend suggested I watch the NY version. I saw the episode where the countess (little c on purpose) was upset she didn't get the recognition she felt she deserved at the fundraiser. It was so intensely embarrassing to me, I had to change channels. Just ugh!

StuckInABook said...

I have read quite a few reviews of Mapp and Lucia, and yours is absolutely my favourite! Benson on the sin not the sinner - yes, so true, we love them nonetheless. Mapp 'overflowing with insincerity' - you've captured her with three words!

Have you come across the Tom Holt sequels, or Major Benjy by Guy Fraser-Sampson, which was published last year?

Elaine said...

Lisa - I have come to you via your comment on Stuck in a Book which is one of my favourite book blogs. I discovered Mapp and Lucia last year and you might be interested in reading what I had to say. Since then my addiction to EF Benson has grown, have managed to get hold of some of his out of print books and reviewed them also. I second Simon's mention of hte Tom Holt books, they are excellent

http://randomjottings.typepad.com/random_jottings_of_an_ope/2008/07/mapp-and-lucia.html

Linda said...

I haven't done this yet but if you go to Rye in England you will go to the model for Tilling.

Lamb House which belongs to the National Trust so can be toured was the model for Mapp's/Lucia's grand house. Henry James lived there. E. B. Benson himself lived there. Rumor Godden lived there.

Flo said...

Another author I have not heard of but think it sounds right up my street! Anything that has English garden parties and bridge can't be bad!

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