An Eden With No Snake in It: Pure Comedy and Chaste Camp in the English Novel
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In this dissertation I use an old and unfashionable form of literary criticism, close reading, to offer a new and unfashionable account of the literary subgenre called camp. Drawing on the work of, among many others, Susan Sontag, Rita Felski, and Peter Lamarque, I argue that P.G. Wodehouse, E.F. Benson, and Angela Thirkell wrote a type of pure comedy I call chaste camp. Chaste camp is a strange beast. On the one hand it is a sort of children’s literature written for and about adults; on the other hand it rises to a level of literary merit that children’s books, even the best of them, cannot hope to reach.
Since 1964, the year in which Sontag’s famous essay “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” was first published, literary camp has been defined as exclusively queer, and therefore unchaste and entirely grown-up, and in the process the purity of its comedy—and most of its comedy, as well—has been ignored. I trace these two unfortunate developments to the rise of critique, a method of literary criticism defined by its cynicism about literature’s relationship to the world outside of art. A novel, play, or poem that is not interrogating the status quo is, according to practitioners of critique, doomed to sustain it.
Reading Wodehouse, Benson, and Thirkell closely, rather than subjecting them to critique, shows that chaste camp offers a superior, artificial and therefore very durable alternative to the status quo—as most good literature does. To insist that literature adjust itself to the ever-changing aims of critique, and fit itself into the real world, is to demand that it be something unliterary. The wonderful paradox of pure comedy, of which chaste camp is perhaps the preeminent type, is that its artificiality makes it timeless. It is in the world, but emphatically not of the world.
These, then, are my conclusions—that Wodehouse, Benson, Thirkell, and Evelyn Waugh wrote camp; that camp is a type of comedy; that there is a kind of camp that has gone unnamed, whose name is chaste camp; that chaste camp is a kind of pure comedy; finally, that close reading in combination with the judicious use of literary scholarship reveals these and other truths that critique, in its slavish devotion to novelty and fashion, keeps hidden.
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