One can be made to feel guilty about enjoying reality TV, especially the Real Housewives of Orange County or New York or Beverly Hills or New Jersey or Atlanta where there is no other point to the show other than to see people being mean and catty and stupid. I tend not to feel too guilty about it. In my opinion these shows are a lot less perverse than endless scripted dramas about murder and crime. For some reason we humans seem to like watching unfortunate people doing unfortunate things.
Lately I’ve been listening to audio versions of Benson’s Lucia and Mapp books. I’ve read all of them in the past and have watched the brilliant 1980s TV adaptation with Geraldine McEwan, Prunella Scales, and Nigel Hawthorne a million times. I’ve also watched the recent TV adaptation (which I thought was pretty to look at but very unsatisfying). Each form of the books is wonderful in its own way, but the audiobooks really do make the best of Benson’s material. They bring the printed word to life and unlike the TV versions, you still get to hear every word Benson wrote. And they are marvelous and funny and just plain wonderful.
As I listened to the first two of the series (Queen Lucia and Miss Mapp) I was struck by how wonderfully awful Benson’s characters are to each other and how so many of their shenanigans are replayed each week on one of the Real Housewives shows.
Gossip: The lifeblood of Benson and the Real Housewives. The characters make the collection and sharing of gossip an art form. The only difference is most of the Real Housewives at some point will say “If you have something to say about me, say it to my face.” With the exception of Quaint Irene, I don’t think a Benson character would ever think that a good idea.
Frenemies: These characters love to have “friends” who are unafraid to stab each other in the back. The Bensonites are certainly more polite than their Real Housewives counterparts and are more likely to pull back just short of letting their bad behavior break the genteel surface, and extend symbolic olive branches to ensure their adversaries live to fight another day. On the Real Housewives they always take it a step too far, scream at each other, and then pretend to make up so they can “move forward”.
Can’t support a charity without having a party: For both Benson and the Real Housewives, a pretty frock, plenty to eat and drink, and lots of narcissistic ‘altruism’ are prerequisites for philanthropy.
Keeping up with the Joneses: Whether its Mapp and Godiva and their dueling dresses and Mrs Wyse and her furs and Rolls or a Real Housewife driving a leased Bentley, these people infuse possessions with status.
Gurus and other spiritual quackery: Despite dear Daisy and the gang always looking for the next best spiritual fad to lead the to a higher plane or the Real Housewives and their mediums, sage-ings, and crystals, they all still claim to be Christians.
Charlatans: Lucia and Georgie pretending they know Italian and any number of Real Housewives pretending they can sing. Why do they do it? Everyone knows the truth and talks about it behind their backs.
Vanity: The Real Housewives may have their plastic surgery and make-artists, but who’s to say that is any different than Georgie’s ministrations with toupes and hair dye?
While Benson predates the Real Housewives by about 80 years, I don’t think he was the first to invent these kinds of characters. I am sure there are many examples but the one that comes to my mind is the ladies of Cranford. Certainly much nicer than Benson’s characters but not without their petty schemes and proof that our desire to witness this kind of behavior runs deep.