Milan Kundera defines kitsch as the complete absence of shit. Think Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom. Camp, by contrast, means kitsch with the shit self-consciously and artfully restored. Think Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party. Camp is the stylization of attitudes, not artifice alone, but faux artifice, arms crossed fiercely, wrists limp. Think Charles Ludlam’s Camille, shivering melodramatically in her garret at the Theatre of the Ridiculous: “Nanine, put another faggot on the fire.” Camp places quotation marks around everything (Sontag), but it remains in earnest about its insincerity, an exclamation point disguised by a question mark. Think Charles Ludlam’s Hedda Gabler, hairy chest heaving above the lace-trimmed décolletage: “I’m burning your child, Thea!” Camp presents itself as too important ever to be taken seriously: beneath its thin veneer is a thin veneer, papering over life’s ever-accumulating embarrassments of affect with flocked-velvet bravado.
Whatever else it may do, camp must always put on a show. It assumes that there is role to be played in a scene that must be set on a stage that constantly repeats this fabulous performance: the magic of doubling as an alternative to the tyrannically unitary normal; not as escape, because complete escape is impossible, but as relief; not as breech, because transgression is not total abandonment, but as expansion. Think lip-syncing. Camp reveals no hidden depths because what is hiding in plain sight needs all the therapeutic recuperation it can get. Think hand-colored pornographic postcards from the primal scene with no return address: “Wish You Were Here.”
“Mother Camp” refers to cultural anthropologist Esther Newton’s classic ethnography of female impersonators. The stories she assiduously gathered from the performers she interviewed led her to this aphoristic insight:”Camp humor ultimately grows out of the incongruity between the sacred, idealized Mother, and the profane, obscene woman.” That stagy conflict, generative of dark humor and outrageous performances of excess, suggests a connection to the peculiar and sometimes inexplicable turns within works by Horace Walpole, especially his tragedy, The Mysterious Mother, and his Disneyesque estate. Evoking Gothic fairylands built, written and performed, “the pleasures of distress” refer to Walpole’s project of housing a beloved comic actress at Strawberry Hill, the tragicomic precinct of incestuous fantasy, and enlisting her in the semi-public staging of his not-so-secret desires in the format of the house tour. The tragedy of incest was suppressed and remained unperformed. The tour was a high-camp blockbuster.
The question of Horace Walpole’s sexuality remains open. In Between Men, Eve Sedgwick says that his character aligns itself with homosexuality “iffily” (93). In Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century and Queer Gothic, George Haggerty movingly employs the hermeneutics of circumspection in accounting for Walpole’s male friendships as representative of the complexity of a love that dares to speak its many different names. In Queer Gothic, Haggerty further details the extent to which erotic love in Walpole’s sexual economy seems to circulate in the form of incest fantasies. In The Gendering of Men, 1600-1750, Thomas A. King tentatively locates Walpole’s sex life among his life-long school chums under the regime of “residual pederasty,” an aristocratic atavism of British public school and Oxbridge education, enacting the coveted perquisites of the class system as much or perhaps even more urgently than same-sex desire for its own sake. Others draw similarly suggestive but refreshingly unsettled conclusions. With the exception of straight-ahead Timothy Mowl in Horace Walpole: The Great Outsider (1996), everyone else knows that the word homosexuality is anachronistic when referring to the eighteenth century.
But speaking of anachronisms, what about camp?
Sontag finds the pre-history of camp in the eighteenth century. She notes the importance of artifice, stylization, and surfaces to the aesthetics of the period—and well she might. The Look is of the essence: Sir Fopling Flutter can’t find himself in a room without a mirror; Boucher and Fragonard applique their best Rococo work as wall treatments; Kent and Brown perfect Nature by planting dead trees in Picturesque gardens. Walpole’s persona is best viewed from this psychologically foreshortened but aesthetically lively perspective. What indeed can be known for certain about the inner life a man who, assiduously cultivating surfaces, coined the modern usages of the words patina and serendipity? Walpole’s biography, accessible in unusual detail through a lifetime of letters (4,000 of them, collected in forty-eight volumes), offers some hints but no epiphany. Walpole adored his mother. Yet she packed him off to live with his cousins at age eight, thence to Eton at nine. This datum is neither to be ignored nor overemphasized. At age 16 he wrote stoically to Lyttelton about the scene of her deathbed but unburdened himself theatrically to Conway (Mowl, 36). Then, first at school and later in adulthood, Walpole fiercely declared his love for other men in letters to them and in letter to others about them. This datum might count for more, but in what ways? As Wilmarth S. (“Lefty”) Lewis wrote long ago in Rescuing Horace Walpole, answering the imputation of homosexuality on the basis of Walpole’s passionate epistles to Conway and Lord Lincoln, “extravagant letters written in the effusive style of the time are not proof of ‘overt behavior’” (47).
Leaving inclinations in the background, overt behavior is a crux for historians of camp. What can be said with certainty about Walpole’s? This much is clear: he generally preferred the company of women, unless they were monsters. Chief among the women whose company Walpole preferred, the actress Katherine “Kitty” Clive shone forth as exemplary. Brilliant in comedies, her own as well as Cibber’s and Garrick’s, and angel voiced in oratorios, including Handel’s, Clive made up in personal charisma what she lacked in physical beauty. Even in her youth, as depicted by Jeremiah Davison in a portrait of 1735, she looks more maternal than nubile, holding open a score on her lap as if she is conducting a music lesson. Unusually among the actresses of the period, Clive never overtly associated herself with an admirer, even though her marriage had failed at the outset of her long career, leaving her as available as any of the prominent public women of the day. When she retired from the stage in 1769, however, Walpole offered her a house to live in as her own on the grounds of his estate at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham. It became known as “Little Strawberry Hill” or “Clive’s Den.” She occupied it happily until her death in 1785. For fifteen years she and Walpole routinely played cards together after supper and gossiped chattily into the evening. On special occasions, they arranged theatrical entertainments together. Town and Country Magazine coupled them romantically in a risqué Tête à Tête, but Walpole shrugged off the idea that she was his mistress. He offered the very unromantic explanation that they were both too old for that sort of thing, at least old enough to know better.
Certain other women’s company Walpole did not prefer. Chief among these female monsters Walpole numbered Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, tainted in every disgusting vein by “poxed, foul, malicious, black blood!” Warming to his theme, he elaborated his revulsion at the very idea of Lady Mary in theatrical, Oedipal, and Biblical terms:
I have gone alone in a coach with her too, and felt as little inclination to her as if I had been her son. She is a better specific against lust than all the bawdy prohibitions of the Fathers. She comes up to one of Almanzor’s rants in a play of Dryden—The thought of me shall make you impotent! (Correspondence, 30: 10-11).
Jill Campbell, in an article of great subtlety and prescience, points out that this attack on Lady Mary erupts in the context of a letter to Lord Lincoln in which Walpole professes his love for him and several other male friends. Campbell overlays these expressions of same-sex love on hypothesized sexual revulsion in rejected incest—Walpole “felt as little inclination to [Lady Mary] as if I had been her son”—to create a many-layered reading of sexual complexity and ambivalence. The passage in the letter to Lincoln ends with Walpole’s fantastic image of Lady Mary’s bloated body drowning her lovers in a sea of “black blood,” swallowing them in a trackless expanse with neither a coast nor a bottom (Campbell, 248-9). In this grotesque marine-scape of misogyny, Lady Mary might be nominated as a candidate for the title of “profane, obscene woman,” avatar of shame and disgust, as described by Esther Newton in Mother Camp.
An old Italian saying goes, “All women are whores except my mother, who is a saint.” In the Disney-like precincts of Strawberry Hill, the childless Clive seemed well cast in the role of the idealized Mother. As the singer of oratorios, she even had a claim on the sacred, though Walpole enjoyed her sometimes bawdy humor. Clive’s purpose as the live-in comic Muse on the premises seems to have been to help makeover the kitsch and upgrade it to camp. In the decades-long project of building and decorating Strawberry Hill, 1748-1790, Clive provided skilled help with the décor as well as domestic companionship and entertainment. In the year before Clive’s death, house-proud Walpole produced a guide book to inform the tourists who had begun to frequent his Gothic Revival folly. A Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole at Strawberry-Hill near Twickenham, Middlesex might be interpreted as camp performance itself. Like the Haunted House at Disney World, every room is curated with a preconceived program of what the experience of the visitor will be like. “You first enter a gloomy hall,” Walpole explains, “paved with hexagon tiles, and lighted by two narrow windows of painted glass” (8). Through the labyrinth of catalogued curiosities and themed galleries the tourist walks and gawks. The architectural details quote famous originals: the chimney piece in The Round Drawing Room is taken from the Tomb of Edward the Confessor; the ceiling piece, designed by Mr. Adam, knocks off the “round window in Old Saint Paul’s,” and so forth (20). After the Great Parlour but before the Armoury, the tourist enters The Blue Bed-Chamber: “Hung with plain blue paper; a linen bed; eight chinz chairs; a toilette worked by Mrs. Clive; a looking glass in a tortoiseshell from, ornamented with silver” etc. (12).
The increasing intimacy of the sights and tchotchkes along the way builds suspense for the voyeuristic climax of The Beauclerc Closet, the last room on the tour and the sanctum sanctorum of over-the-top exhibitionism. Supposedly off limits except to especially favored guests, the Closet is in fact described in detail in the guide book available to any visitor for 6p: “The closet is hung with Indian blue damask and was built on purpose to receive seven incomparable drawings of Lady Diana Beauclerc for Mr. Walpole’s tragedy of The Mysterious Mother” (26). Locked away in a special cabinet, a copy of the play awaited perusal by the elect at Walpole’s invitation. Unproduced but circulated in manuscript, The Mysterious Mother features an action of double incest across two generations: young Edmund, duped by a bed trick, “clasps” his mother, the Countess of Narbonne, instead of his lover. But Walpole goes Sophocles one better—Oedipus at Colonnus with a sexual twist. As a result of this one night of incestuous love, the Countess gives birth to a daughter, Adeliza, who ends up years later partnered with Edmund, her father and brother. As the ideal mother and obscene woman, trapped within in the one body of the Countess, tear themselves apart at the terrible moment of discovery, a kind of fission reaction takes place that produces a mushroom cloud of camp:
Confusion! Frenzy! Blast me, all ye furies!
Edmund and Adeliza! When! Where! How!
Edmund and Adeliza! Quick, unsay
The monstrous tale—oh! Prodigy of ruin!
Does my own son then boil with fiercer fires
Than scorched his impious mother’s madding veins!
Did reason reassume its shattered throne,
But as spectatress of this last of horrors?
Oh! Let my dagger drink my heart’s black blood,
And then present my hell-born progeny
With drops of kindred sin!
The phrase “black blood” links this hyperventilated soliloquy to the terms of Walpole’s revulsion at the tainted liquid coursing through another set of “madding veins,” namely those belonging to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
The retrofitting of modern and contemporary behaviors and concepts to eighteenth century works will (and should be) scrutinized with due skepticism. But the particular features of camp performance, luxuriating in the pleasures of distress, seem to illuminate the otherwise perplexing tonal shifts in Walpole’s works. The key to Walpole’s campiness resides in his greatest work, the house and grounds of Strawberry Hill, haunted by the mysterious mother, a closet drama, but performed by the resident comedienne.