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)