13 January 2012

In Praise of the Avid Dilettante

Geraldine McEwan as Lucia, in one of the greatest performances
I have ever seen on television.

In reflecting further on Susanne Mentzer’s Huffington Post column and my essay from yesterday, I returned to an observation I’ve been mulling over for some time: namely, there is a diametrical opposite to the sort of people who never go to galleries or concerts. And I have come up with a gang of unlikely role models.

Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas and Elizabeth Mapp are the central characters in a series of comic novels by E.F. Benson. Ordinarily I wouldn’t suggest them as role models to anybody, because they’re truly awful people — deliciously so, I hasten to add — backstabbing busybodies who plot against one another in order to achieve and maintain social dominance in the tiny seaside village where they live.*

Prunella Scales (at left, fondly remembered as Sibyl Fawlty)
played Elizabeth Mapp in the TV adaptation.
She’s seen here with Geraldine McEwan as Lucia.

Naturally, then, these characters don’t seek out art for the right reasons. If they sketch or paint watercolors, it is primarily to win prizes and to defeat rivals. If they play piano, it is primarily to monopolize the attention of dinner guests. If they attend an opera, it is primarily to enjoy the company of a famous singer, after the show, and if they speak Italian, it is entirely to show off.

Art for Mapp and Lucia is a weapon to be used in their constant social warfare. They’re both intelligent, upper-class women with no more productive use of their time, and who knows whether, if they had jobs of some sort, they’d be quite so avid in their pursuit of culture. They’re cheats, too. For example, when Lucia reads Ancient Greek, she resorts to dual-language editions, and her Italian is mostly sham (leading to one of the novels’ most famous episodes).

Nigel Hawthorne as Georgie Pillson, Lucia’s closest
(and most effeminate) friend.

And yet these characters do have cultivation. Whether they practice the arts well or poorly is — for the purposes of this discussion — almost irrelevant. They do sketch. They do play piano. They put on theatricals and recite poetry. They do speak at least a bit of a few foreign languages. And they do expose themselves to other people’s art, as well, even if they don’t quite understand (or even like) modern music and painting.

Which is to say that Mapp, Lucia, and their friends are doing exactly what the rest of us ought to be doing. Yes, they’re doing these things for the wrong reasons, but how many of the rest of us, lo these decades later, could do as much? Maybe they’re not great artists, but they keep the engines humming for themselves and for everyone else.

Benson’s characters become quite admirable, when viewed in this context. You wouldn’t have to force Mapp or Lucia to go to a museum or attend a concert; you wouldn’t have to explain why art is important or cajole them into supporting arts programs. I’d probably hate to know them, and yet I’m sorry I’m not more like them.

*NOTE: The fictional village of Tilling, where Mapp and Lucia live, is based on the town of Rye. Henry James spent his last years there — and Benson was the subsequent occupant of James’ house. In the Mapp and Lucia novels, Benson describes the house in detail, particularly a window ideally situated for spying on the main street; at various points in the story first Mapp and then Lucia live there. The house was destroyed in World War II, so this is as close as we’ll get to it — and thanks to Benson, we have a pretty terrific image now of Henry James sitting in that very window and snooping on his neighbors as he almost certainly must have done.


Jérôme said...

Oh, I am pretty sure you can always meet them when livig in a small town!

Some of the funniest books I have ever read.

PastMastery said...

I live in a small town in Northamptonshire U.K. They still exist these people.

And yes...the funniest thing ever!Mapp and Lucia. Never tire of it....them.