Devoney Looser

Arizona State University


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AustenAt first glance, and seen in a certain light, Jane Austen (1775–1817) might be judged the furthest thing from long-eighteenth-century camp since John Bunyan. But anyone looking hard at the 1870s imaginary portrait of her, flashing that wedding ring, must leave the act of observation wondering if he or she’d just been to Austen camp.1 This portrait may or may not have been campy when it first appeared, when the cornerstone of Austen’s reputation as prim maiden auntie was first being laid. Now we can easily recognize this St. (or Mrs.?) Jane as a fabulously campy fabrication. We may—perhaps even should—laugh at this portrait, albeit not in a sneering way. Today we can appreciate its exaggerated absurdity. Indeed, we early 21st-century readers of Austen may see more clearly the appropriateness of that response than any generation before us.

But if that was the 1870s, and this is now, then what about the 1790s or the 1810s? Was Jane Austen campy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Austen camp has become prevalent, even omnipresent, today, in visions and versions of her and her fiction, using them as a canvas for zombies, porn, or roller derby. Some of it may be kitsch, but it’s arguably camp. Investigating Austen as camp is a valuable way to understand her humor and her social criticism, as we now understand camp as a positive literary and social practice. But rather than asking if and when camp is “there,” for Austen or for her past readers, we might instead investigate what aspects or elements of her reputation or her writing we notice differently when we elect to see her as campy. What do we miss out on by doing that sort of noticing? Finally, once you start to see Austen camp, can you, or how can you, un-see it? 

Offering an opinion on these questions may require a shared understanding of what camp and Austen mean, separately and together. Susan Sontag famously defined camp as a sensibility that purveys a failed seriousness, a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” “a spirit of extravagance” (283), a “sweet cynicism” (291), and she located its origins in the eighteenth century (280).2 She later revised her sense of camp’s necessary apoliticism, suggesting instead that camp could have feminist implications.3 Subsequent critics have reclaimed camp’s feminist potential to function “as a form of gender parody.”4 Austen seems most directly to engage in feminist literary camp when she humorously and exaggeratedly reuses and recycles gendered plots, characters, and tropes, in order to remake and reconfigure (Robertson 142).

Surely I’m not the only panelist who reread Sontag and opened up the OED. The word there is dated to 1909, in its meaning of “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to or characteristic of homosexuals.” Its etymology is, appropriately, described as “obscure,” but that OED first-recorded source indicates that the word is “probably from the French.” (Even if you snicker at the “probably” here, it’s important to note that scholar Mark Booth has traced this meaning of camp back to late 17th-century France and “se camper.”5) The dictionary cited by the OED is James Redding Ware’s Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase (1909). The OED doesn’t include the first sentence of Ware’s definition of camp: “Actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis”—but it does quote Ware’s last sentence: “Used chiefly by persons of exceptional want of character. ‘How very camp he is.’”6

 The search for possible connections between Austen, camp, and alleged “want of character” (likely code here for male homosexual) could take us back to the London Review of Books’ unanswerable question— the headline that launched a thousand kerfluffles—“Was Jane Austen Gay?” (1995).7 No matter how you think that question should be answered or what you make of the conversations it engendered, I hope we can agree that mass produced visions of Austen’s camNotorious JennyApiness have become far less controversial over the past two decades. It’s a very different time to ask that question for any literary figure but especially for Austen. The “Notorious Jenny-A” t-shirt pictured here might serve as our Exhibit A. Also changed are our conceptions of Austen as queer (in its expansive sense), sexual (although not perhaps in its most knowing sense), and theatrical (in its traditional sense). These changes are about our changed—and, I believe, deepened—understandings of life and writings but also about her critical and popular image.

Austen’s fiction is where we ought to dig in for more concrete ways to recognize changing perceptions of her campiness. You don’t have to believe that Austen intentionally made her female characters tell sodomy jokes, that she wrote elliptically about masturbation, or that she implied (wink-wink-nod-nod) that girls who rode horses were sex fiends to be convinced that her fiction flirted with camp. D. A. Miller has helped us to re-see Sense and Sensibility’s “puppy” Robert Ferrars’s buying an ivory, gold, and pearl toothpick case, as he demands admiration from the Dashwood sisters as a campy scene. (We’re told that Elinor raises an eyebrow and Marianne is oblivious to him.)8 What Miller calls “style” here we might rechristen as “camp.” Other Austen moments, too, seem ripe for re-evaluation. How can we not view Emma’s odious Mrs. Elton’s suggestion that she’ll find a donkey to ride fashionably to the party at Donwell Abbey—as Mr. Knightley cunningly insults her by assuring her he wants “every thing to be as much to your taste as possible”—as camp? The conjured-up image of Mrs. Elton riding in on an ass, with her husband promenading beside her, is priceless and is about the furthest imaginable thing from Mary and Joseph. One gets the sense that, as much as such an act would annoy the character of Mr. Knightley, he would also delight in being horrified by such a scene. So would—or should—the astute reader. Seeing this sort of camp in the so-called mature novels makes the juvenilia that much less of a surprise.

If such examples are definable as Austen camp, they are, however, a particular take on it, one that’s perhaps best described as Vanilla Camp. Sontag is useful for inviting further reflection on this notion, too, suggesting the most effective forms of camp do not knowingly present themselves as such. This may seem almost oxymoronic: you can’t create high quality camp on purpose. Sontag would have it that the best camp is artifice exaggeratedly pointed out with innocence and naïvete. That would seem to suggest vanilla camp as a superior kind. Yet armed with our background in eighteenth-century novel’s heroines, we might raise an eyebrow at that ourselves. (Are we on the same ground here as “How do novels teach eighteenth-century female readers to be artless?”) If we were forced to classify Austen on one pole or the other, would we find her writing campy-artless or campy-knowing? The juvenilia seems the latter, with the novels harder to define. We could make a case for Austen’s setting out to be a Queen of Vanilla Camp. But is vanilla camp, pace Sontag, even really camp? Isn’t the point of camp that it’s exaggerated and unsubtle, calls attention to itself, and generally doesn’t give a shit? What’s gained by being/doing camp as naïve, as Camp Lite? (There may be an answer in here that could help make sense of Austen’s enduring appeal with both critical and popular audiences.)

  JaneAustenSexBoutiqueWe could debate this further—and I hope we will—but it seems to me that much of today’s Austen-derived camp—even the most ostentatious, showy, and outrageous takes on her—continue to cluster around the vanilla. Some like to claim that contemporary Austen campiness takes us too far afield from her fiction in its content, and that somehow she’d be offended by it, but these new campy texts may be keeping with her writing in kind. A case in point is this cartoon from the 1992 Sunday Telegraph. It reads, “Jane Austen’s Sex Boutique: We’re in the Extremely Chaste Sex Shop Guide.” What can be campier, or vanilla campier, than an Extremely Chaste Sex Shop? Austen’s novels are so chastely and exaggeratedly sexy that generations of readers and critics have missed that quality, even more often than her humor and irony. In today’s incarnations of Austen, such residually mistaken assumptions (“There is no sex in Jane Austen”) are adorably, artificially, and exaggeratedly old-fashioned, transformed into ur-vanilla caricatures of literary history (i.e. “Oh, how cute. Classic novels used to try to hush up sex.”)

Two quick examples from today’s popular culture might also launch further discussion. How campy, or what kind of campy, is Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (2016)? The film was a disappointment at the box office, not because it wasn’t cleverly exaggerated or ostentatiously artificial but because in the scenes that took themselves too seriously, the result was too tame for horror/zom-com audiences. Not even P&P&Z’s Hot Topic product tie-ins could overcome the second-half of the film’s self-seriousness and its PG-13 rating. P&P&Z’s camp arguably hadn’t gone far enough or been sustained long enough. It was only half-vanilla camp. Today’s Austen porn, too, tends in that direction. Much of it is painted with the same brush as Mommy Porn, à la Fifty Shades of Grey, only funnier. It’s often difficult to imagine that we’re supposed to do anything other than laugh at Austen porn. I’ll leave you with just one line from the Clandestine Classics version of Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen and Desiree Holt: “Tilney’s expression heated as he watched her. ‘Do you fancy the taste, then?’ Catherine nodded mutely.”9

Finally, I’ve leave off with a few questions that might launch discussion on Austen’s fiction and camp: Is Mansfield Park the least campy of her novels? Is Northanger Abbey the most? Lady Susan is certainly camp extraordinaire. (It seems no accident that we are living in the moment of its screen emergence, as Whit Stillman’s Sundance-debuted film, Love and Friendship.) How campy is Sanditon? Did Austen’s fiction become less campy as she aged? What is the relationship, if any, between Austen and/or long eighteenth-century youth, age, and camp? I very much look forward to our conversation, in large- and small-groups, at the session.


  1.  The portrait first appeared in Evert A. Duyckinck’s Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America. 2 vols. (New York: Johnson, Wilson & Co, 1873), I: 408. Claudia Johnson discusses this image, concluding that the engraver “manifestly has no idea who Jane Austen is, other than the fact that she is a woman and an author.” See Johnson, Jane Austen: Cults and Cultures (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2012), 44.
  2. Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” (1964) in Against Interpretation: and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1966), 275–92. All of Sontag’s examples of camp authors from the late 17th to the 19th centuries are male.

  3. Sontag argues, “Camp’s extremely sentimental relation to beauty is no help to women, but its irony is: ironizing about the sexes is one small step toward depolarizing them. In this sense the diffusion of camp taste in the early ‘60s should probably be credited with a considerable if inadvertent role in the upsurge of feminist consciousness in the late 1960s” (40). One might say the same about Jane Austen’s impact on the later nineteenth-century women’s movement. See Susan Sontag, Robert Boyers, and Maxine Bernstein, “Women, the Arts, and the Politics of Culture: An Interview with Susan Sontag,” Salmagundi 31-32 (Fall 1975-Winter 1976), 29-48.

  4. Pamela Robertson, Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 10.

  5. Mark Booth, “Campe-Toi! On the Origins and Definitions of Camp,” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader. Ed. Fabio Cleto (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1999), 66-79 . Sontag, too, notes this connection and indicates that the Oxford French Dictionary translates camper as “to posture boldly.” See Sontag et al., “Women, the Arts,” 41.

  6. James Redding Ware’s Passing English of the Victorian era: a dictionary of heterodox English, slang, and phrase (London: George Routledge, 1909), 61. An earlier dictionary gave it far different meanings, “to go to camp, to go to bed, to take rest” (Australian), “to take into camp, to kill” (common) and “To camp, to surpass, floor” (Australian). See John S. Farmer and W. E. Henley, Slang and its Analogues: Past and Present, Vol. 2. (Privately Printed, 1893), 23. A later edition notes that “a Camp-follower” was a prostitute. See Farmer and Henley’s Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English (London: Routledge, 1905), 85. 

  7. Terry Castle, “Sister, Sister” [“Was Jane Austen Gay?”] London Review of Books (3 August 1995): 3–6.

  8. D. A. Miller, Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003), 26.

  9. Jane Austen and Desiree Holt. Northanger Abbey (Lincoln, United Kingdom: Clandestine Classics, 2012), 206.