the Housewives & Henry
During the reunion episodes for Real Housewives of New York (Season Six), the season-long feud between journalist -author Carole Radziwill and television godsend Aviva Drescher culminated in Drescher admonishing Radziwill to “use your vocabulary, writer girl.” The nature of the argument was, at the time, new territory for Bravo’s soapy reality franchise. Straying from the usual dust-ups over Pinot Grigio or Louis Vuitton shoes, the nature of this fight was decidedly more bookish: for all of the sixth season, Drescher made it her mission to undermine Carole’s authorial cred by claiming Radziwill's books had ghost writers
“Writer girl” (as opposed to, say, “author)” is an example of the Housewives chestnut of opaquely attacking one another through seemingly small semantic quibbles, much like when Kelly Bensimon informed Bethenny Frankel “you’re not a chef; you’re a cook” during one of their many sparring matches on Scary Island during Season Three. For all their blowouts, the charm of RHONY lies within their surprising subtleties: their brand of communication is notoriously circumlocutious, charged with lingering subtext, enough to last for eleven seasons. If you watch enough Real Housewives of New York (RHONY,) you come to know these fights really aren’t about books, or wine, or toaster ovens, or bad taste in shoes. (Although, when they say it’s about Tom—it’s about Tom.)
Henry James is a late-nineteenth and early- twentieth-century author, best known for works that simultaneously tap into the psychological interiorities of their characters and offer portraits of various milieux (including New York, Paris, Boston, and London.) A 1907 article titled “Henry James as Literary Sphynx” takes up what it calls the “problem of Henry James.” Critic W.C. Brownell sums this up as: “Henry James has chosen to be an original writer in a way that precludes him, as a writer, from being a great one.” The rest of the articles meanders through different critical receptions of James loosely linked through their general agreement that his trademarks include “stylistic subtleties” (especially syntactical ones) and an “inveterate quest of the elusive.”
Taking up these questions of subtlety/subtext and elusiveness as an entry point, I’m beginning a twelve-week reading and watching experiment. I’ll be reading Henry James’ The Ambassadors (a text I last read for an Oscar Wilde and Henry James seminar many years ago) and watching The Real House Wives of New York Season Five together. I will readily admit that I am no Henry James expert, but this seems like a good opportunity to spend some more time and learn more about his novels. On the other hand, if there's one thing I know, I know the Housewives (especially the New York franchise). As I wind my way through Henry James and Housewives, I’ll probably speculate further on the merits of pairing this particular novel (as opposed to The Portrait of a Lady or The Bostonians, which may seem more likely) with this particular season (as opposed to the inaugural season.) Though, I will say a couple words from my place of expertise—as a Housewives viewer—addressing the why? of Season Five .
The fifth season of RHONY is famous for having the biggest cast shake-up in the history of the franchise. After extraordinarily toxic (a favorite word of ‘wives) third and fourth seasons, four of the cast members left (or got fired from) the series. Season Five showcased three returning housewives (Ramona Singer, the Countess Luann de Lesseps, Sonja Morgan) and three new faces (Aviva Drescher, Carole Radziwill, and Heather Thomson.) With so many yet-formed alliances, the fifth season, while confident in its mission as a show, focused less on a season-long, over-arching plotline stressing a single feud or potential case of malingering. Instead, the fifth season meandered its way through shifting affiliations, circumspect meetings, the occasional flare-up. More than any other season, the fifth one feels like the type of prolonged and pleasurable exposition that I love from novels with a stately pace. The relatively (and I stress that word—relatively) cool temperature of Season Five , I anticipate, will allow for thinking about how the show structures its narrative (beyond the Big Fights), how it presents its mise-en-scene, how the show works with point-of-view and cast member perspective, and so on. And, honestly, I could watch Aviva school some housewives on metaphors all day long.
Notes on Organization
I’m splitting up my readings and viewings according to the twelve serialized installments of 1909 New York Edition reprint of The Ambassadors:
Book 1 / Ep. 1
Book 2 / Ep. 2
Book 3 / Ep. 3
Book 4 / Ep. 4
Book 5 / Ep. 5
Book 6 / Ep. 6 & 7
Book 7 / Ep. 8 & 9
Book 8 / Ep. 10
Book 9 / Ep. 11 & 12
Book 10 / Ep. 13, 14, 15
Book 11 / Ep. 16 & 17
Book 12 / Ep. 18
Because RHONY Season Five has eighteen episodes, I’ve doubled (and tripled) up some weeks. In this case, the bundled episodes will feature a standby of the franchise, the group trip, which for this season, included a short jaunt to London and a longer vacation to St. Barths. (Customarily, each season of each Real Housewives includes a lavish vacation, so we can watch our housewives squabble in unfamiliar territory.)
Until next time!
c19 scholar interested in all things freakish