restricted access Frivolity Unbound: Six Masters of the Camp Novel, and: Ancient Cultures of Conceit: British University Fiction in the Post-War Years (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert F. Kiernan. Frivolity Unbound: Six Masters of the Camp Novel. New York: Continuum. 1990. 177 pp. $18.95.
Ian Carter. Ancient Cultures of Conceit: British University Fiction in the Post-War Years. New York: Routledge. 1990. 317 pp. $54.00.

Robert F. Kiernan's Frivolity Unbound quotes as an acceptable definition of camp E. F. Benson's description of his Lucia novels as "small beer with a head on it." Kiernan acknowledges the difficulty of defining camp "apart from such whimsies of metaphor because it [camp] depends crucially upon a style of appreciation as well as upon the structure of incongruities that informs all comedy." This attempt to create camp by combining a properly situated reader/observer with an unspecifiable proportion of comic content improves little on the descriptions of previous theorists of camp like Christopher Isherwood and Susan Sontag. Such discussions rely heavily on illustration, Kiernan complains, but so does his own—his illustrations being, among others, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, "Liberace's feather-and-leather wardrobe," and selected novels of Thomas Love Peacock, Max Beerbohm, Ronald Firbank, E. F. Benson, P. G. Wodehouse, and Ivy Compton-Burnett. He complains as well about the "proprietary attitude [toward camp] in the homosexual subculture" that "resents any effort to edit homosexuality out of the genre," and whereas Kiernan claims a broader definition of camp that includes "excessive stylization of whatever kind," his own choice of example leans heavily toward the "gender-exaggerated." He tries to subdue this element in his discussion of the novels, touching only very lightly on homosexual subtexts. He remarks, for example, that Quaint Irene in E. F. Benson's Lucia series might be a serious challenge to Lucia but that she "worships Lucia blindly." Blind worship seems an odd underappreciation of Quaint (queer) Irene's wonderfully camp (by Kiernan's own definition) attitude toward the Queen of Tilling—uncritical, affectionate amusement and unbounded admiration of Lucia's artifice.

Kiernan's study consists largely of entertaining summaries of the campiest novels of his chosen writers, pointing out along the way their campiest moments. It is all good fun, and one does get a sense thereby of the "frivolity unbound" that Kiernan sees as constitutive of camp. The sense weakens at the end with the chapter on Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose novels seem to require great stretching to illustrate the necessary degree of excess and frivolity. One wonders if Kiernan's conscience (or an editor's) insisted on the inclusion of a woman; Rose Macauley might have been more a amenable, if still problematic, choice. Better yet might have been a chapter on Stevie Smith as a camp poet.

It is, finally, in a Beerbohm quip that Kiernan provides us with the most precisely eloquent illustration of the phenomenon of camp: "They were a tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, weren't they?"

They are a tense and peculiar family, the authors of British university fiction. Ian Carter's study of this fiction in the postwar period argues for a separate genre, characterized by the assumptions that Oxford is England is civilization and that a threat to the first is a threat to the second is a threat to the third. The threats, which Carter elaborates at great length, are "proletarians, scientists, women, and foreigners." Quite different from Kiernan's camp novels, the conservative, bitter, chauvinistic, and misogynist comedies that Carter describes as typical of the genre are no fun at all. After reading about the retrograde assumptions in the 196 books on Carter's list, I may even stop reading David Lodge. [End Page 356]

The material here is often revelatory. We learn, for example that seventy percent of these novels take place at Oxbridge colleges while only eight to fourteen percent of British university students actually attend such. We learn in addition, however, much that seems irrelevant, like the names of all the fictitious Oxbridge colleges in these 196 novels, and there is a whole section on architecture as presented in these novels, the point of which could have been made in a paragraph.

The study "examines the British university novel as discourse" so that "we shall be able to...


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