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The Age of Outrage
Scandal and Rebellion Against Literary Order

Alan Hollinghurst/Ronald Firbank: Camp Filiation as an Aesthetic of the Outrageous

Alan Hollinghurst/Ronald Firbank : la filiation Camp comme esthétique de l’outrage
Georges Letissier


Alan Hollinghurst revendique sa parenté littéraire avec l’écrivain édouardien Ronald Firbank qu’il a édité et auquel il a consacré des essais critiques. Firbank apparaît également dans The Swimming Pool Library, le premier roman de Hollinghurst qui en 1988 traitait ouvertement de l’homosexualité masculine alors que Margaret Thatcher avec la Section 28 du Local Government Act menait une politique résolument homophobe. En partant de la notion de Camp (Susan Sontag), reprise par les études Queer, cet article interroge la poétique firbankienne outrageusement excessive dans son désir de choquer le bourgeois. Mais cette exhibition outrancière voile une fragilité indéniable et une réelle pudeur pour tout ce qui touche à l’intime. Ainsi le parcours de Firbank reflèterait celui de Hollinghurst qui après l’évocation d’une sexualité débridée dans les années qui précédèrent la pandémie du SIDA cultive dans son dernier roman The Stranger’s Child une esthétique de la réticence et de l’occultation. In fine l’examen de la filiation Camp permet de mettre en avant une tension poétique et psychique entre l’extraversion et son envers absolu l’introversion.

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  • 1 Alan Hollinghurst in interview with Catherine Keenan, The Sydney Morning Herald, July 16, 2011.

1When Alan Hollinghurst became famous back in 1988, it was through the publication of The Swimming Pool Library, a novel which is extremely explicit about gay life in London, and gay sex. A quarter of a century later, the stir that it caused at the time may be difficult to understand, at least for a younger generation. The context of the late 1980s was very different from today’s situation, Margaret Thatcher had proposed Section 28, in the Local Government Act 1988, barring ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ by an organ of government and consequently Hollinghurst’s fiction was held up as the type of writing which should not be found on the shelves of public libraries. The hardback edition soon became a bestseller though, and a cause célèbre amongst the literary circles, but the extent of the outrage, understood as shock and indignation, it aroused then amidst a larger section of the public, is evidenced by the difficulty in selling the paperback rights. Now Hollinghurst looks back on those turbulent years which were to change his life, with a mixture of amusement and self-satisfaction. Speaking about what was then regarded as an offensive topic he remarked: ‘It all seemed very topical at the time . . . I shouldn’t blow my own trumpet about it but people hadn’t written literary fiction about the details of gay life before in England. I was quite conscious of having a wonderful new subject to write about.’1

2Hollinghurst was by no means a militant gay activist, nothing to compare with Peter Tatchell who at the same time was hitting the headlines through his outing campaigns targeting public figures making homophobic statements in the media whilst known to be gay in private. Later, in the 1990s, Tatchell was to cofound the action group OutRage which has been active since. Hollinghurst had been deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement when his novel was published and, during the period that followed its publication, he probably witnessed with some distance the debates around the aesthetic value of The Swimming Pool Library, a fiction somehow bridging the gap between high and low culture, through its unique blend of sophisticated literary references and gay porn scenes. Despite being pigeonholed as gaywriter, Hollinghurst gradually appealed to a more mainstream readership till he was awarded the Man Booker in 2004 for The Line of Beauty. The prize-winning novel, which is chiefly about the ghastly Thatcher years treated in a satirical vein, was presented as the first fiction with an openly gay theme to be so celebrated. Even if by the early 21st century the sense of potential outrage had somehow worn off, there was still the need to point out the oddity of the situation and the few critics who panned the book surrendered to the authorial fallacy, as they were unable to discriminate between the recipient’s lifestyle and his aesthetic production.

  • 2 Self uses metaphors of abrupt metamorphoses to comment on the processes of alienation in which huma (...)

3Today, Hollinghurst has become something of an institution in the editorial world and The Stranger’s Child, his latest novel, has been almost unanimously hailed by the press, even if against all odds it did not even make the Man Booker long list. The author is a regular guest both in the media and academia. The question that first arises then is that of the capacity of respected institutions to co-opt within their ranks creators who are, or were thought to be, beyond the pale. Whilst Hollinghurst now repeats that he is a sedate bloke, reluctant to cause any uproar, in The Line of Beauty he launched a scathing—possibly outrageous to some—attack against the Thatcher years, fraught with rampant corruption, by focusing on the lethal cocktail between sex and drugs in a way reminiscent of Will Self’s Dorian: An Imitation. Everyone would probably agree however on finding Self more of an iconoclastic, flamboyant bad-boy outsider than the staid, uptight Hollinghurst even if both, when it comes to this, are in their different ways pillars of the literary establishment. Self would blatantly correspond to the standard definition of the ‘outrageous’ given by dictionaries, as ‘exceeding proper limits; excessive, immoderate, extravagant, enormous, extraordinary’ (SOED vol. II, 1476). His fictions go beyond the boundaries of the human, by distorting perspective and proportion in a Swiftian streak, to challenge his reader’s common perception.2 By contrast, Hollinghurst remains confined within the frame of the realist tradition, a fact which Self derided in a recent interview:

  • 3 ‘Will Self: I don’t write for readers,’ Interview with Elizabeth Day, The Observer, Sunday 5th Augu (...)

‘I have no patience with naturalistic fiction, really, I just find it dull . . . And I feel isolated enough as it is. Everybody loves, you know, what’s-his-face, beardy guy . . .’
‘Alan Hollinghurst.’
‘Alan Hollinghurst! . . . Everybody loves Alan’s books. Tout le monde. And I can’t read them, so . . .’3

4Clearly the outrageous may take on different shades of meaning in contemporary British fiction writing. Self once confessed to having been overawed by the canon and as a result eclectically ventured along the off-beaten tracks of world literature. Hollinghurst, on the opposite, remained within the realm of English literature by taking a side angle at the canon, choosing peripheral writers, often little if at all read, but mostly recalled for their sulfurous, outrageous reputation. Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank, whom Osbert Sitwell described as ‘that unrivalled butterfly’ (Firbank 1981, vii) counts amongst those writers whom Hollinghurst elected as a forerunner.

5Firbank is mentioned on several occasions in The Swimming Pool Library, no doubt casting his halo of outrageousness, and Hollinghurst has tackled the question of an aesthetic of the outrageous in the essays he has dedicated to his mentor, both in his introduction to a volume comprising Firbank’s last three novels which he edited for Penguin Classics in 2000, (Firbank 2000) and more recently in the Lord Northcliffe Lecture he delivered at University College, London in 2006, the proceedings of which were subsequently published in the TLS on November 17 of the same year (Hollinghurst 2006). Ronald Firbank, who has probably fallen into oblivion for most readers today, is mentioned in Susan Sontag’s seminal essay on Camp:

Confining the story to England alone, we see Camp continuing wanly through 19th-century aestheticism (Burne-Jones, Pater, Ruskin, Tennyson), emerging full-blown with the Art Nouveau movement in the visual and decorative arts, and finding its conscious ideologists in such ‘wits’ as Wilde and Firbank.4

6The purpose of this essay is to appraise the potentialities of ‘camp’ as a countercultural impulse within Alan Hollinghurst’s aesthetic by taking on board his own studies of Firbank’s outrageousness. First, it will be shown how Firbank both as historical character and literary persona is introduced in The Swimming Pool Library. Then Hollinghurst’s own examination of Firbank’s writings will be considered and in conclusion some remarks on how the privileged link between the contemporary novelist and his Edwardian forerunner inflects the former’s fictions will be suggested. Implicit throughout this essay will be of course the persisting degree of outrageousness, if any, that may be deduced from this investigation.

Camp and the Outrageous

7Like queer, camp is ‘hard to define’ and ‘notoriously evasive’ (Medhurst 276), and interestingly Sontag herself, after introducing Camp as ‘A sensibility (as distinct from an idea)’ (1), describes Wilde and Firbank as ‘conscious ideologists’ (5) of Camp. In the same essay, she also rather peremptorily claims that ‘It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical’ (2). Such a statement is actually by no means consensual. It has been aptly recalled for example that Camp was a means of communication and survival for gay people especially before the Stonewall riots and the advent of gay rights movements in the late 1960s (Bronski 42). Moreover, in his introduction to The Politics and Poetics of Camp, Moe Meyer sets out to reclaim the discourse of Camp by stating that it is not (pace Sontag) a sensibility devoid of content but a praxis formed at the intersection of social agency and postmodern parody (Meyer 8).

8Viewed in this perspective, Camp is instrumental in producing a queer social visibility which sets a challenge to essentialism. The outrage which it triggers would not be merely cosmetic and histrionic—a matter of burlesque and travesty—but instead offers resistance to middle-class, patriarchal values. Thus Camp has been revived to mean more than effeminate gestures and over-the-top performances of gendered identities betraying internalised self-loathing, in short the message has been passed on that camp need not be a slippery category divorced from a tangible political commitment. Scholars like Jack Babuscio, Fabio Cleto, Philip Core and of course Judith Butler also propound that Camp is invested with an ontological significance as it disclaims the Self as unique, abiding and continuous to posit it as performative, improvisational and discontinuous. Butler especially went far in exploding the idea that there is an ontological foundation to gender identification by showing that through their theatricality Camp or drag do not so much imitate or parody an original as they expose the notion of the original as a fantasy in the first place:

The notion of gender parody defended here does not assume that there is an original which parodic identities imitate. Indeed, the parody is of the very notion of an original. . . . so gender parody reveals that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin.
(Butler 188. Original italics)

9Camp therefore partakes of a whole set of interrogations about prescribed identity formation, or the refusal thereof, within an ideological context. This naturally leads Hollinghurst’s readers to question the inscription of Firbank, both as an iconic figure and as a marginalized aesthete, within the contemporary novelist’s production.

Fictionalising the Firbankian Camp

10In Chapter III of The Swimming Pool Library Hollinghurst dedicates no less than a whole page to Firbank. The scene takes place on a London train after Will Beckwith, one the two narrators, returns back home from a Soho cinema:

On the train home I carried on reading Valmouth. It was an old grey and white Penguin Classic that James had lent me, the pages stiff and foxed, with a faint smell of lost time. Wet-bottomed wine glasses had left mauve rings over the sketch of the author by Augustus John and the price, 3/6, which appeared on a red square on the cover. Nonetheless I was enjoined to take especial care of the book, which also contained Prancing Nigger and Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli. (Hollinghurst 54)

11The digressive passage on Firbank underscores a bibliomaniac, fetishistic attachment to a soiled copy including three of the writer’s fictions and bearing the mark of time. The special status of the book as a shared object in a close love-friendship relationship is then signaled; James is a sort of elder mentor figure to the young Will Beckwith. The aesthetic judgment that is proffered subsequently combines typically camp flippancy and elitist clannishness: ‘The characters were flighty and extravagant in the extreme, but the novel itself was evidently as tough as nails’ (54). The next paragraph blends a plot summary of Valmouth with a sample of Firbank’s idiosyncratic minimalist, reduction of speech to a single, repeated consonant and his equally weird taste for italics and odd punctuation: ‘It means discretion. S-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-sh!’ (55) What matters though is how this Firbankian vignette percolates through Hollinghurst’s novel.

12On the same page (54), exoticism is suggested at once through Mrs Yajñavalkya, the black masseuse, and the title Prancing Nigger, Firbank’s only novel to have met with some success, when it was published in England under the Camp appellation Sorrow in Sunlight. If anything, this novel testifies to Firbank’s fascination with people of colour and his identification with them, possibly as a result of his ostracisation from straight society:

Even his friends could feel embarrassed by him; and his admirers have often been prey to ambivalence, the sense that a distance has to be kept from his queenery, from the intensity of a self that is not merely undisguised but insisted on, languidly and nervously. (Hollinghurst 2006, 12)

13The link with The Swimming Pool is all too obvious as the second narrator, Lord Charles Nantwich, chronicles through his diaries his passion for the Nubians while he served as a colonial administrator in the Sudan. The entangled connections between England and her former colonial Empire, which Hollinghurst touches upon, evidence the complex relations between even the more enlightened representatives of the ruling classes and the inhabitants of the colonies. Indeed, in spite of his repeated pleas of treating his black subordinates responsibly out of a sense of altruism, Nantwitch may be seen as an example of the Orientalist idealisation that was the counterpart of the colonial adventure: ‘a fetishized ‘Other’ is constructed to stand in for a generalized desire for a sexualized possession and appropriation of the colonized.’ (Brown and Sant 117) Nantwich takes back to England Tahar, his Sudanese servant, whom he later discovers to have married and who is lynched to death by a white gang. Conversely, Lord Nantwich is sent to prison during the especially hostile persecution of gay men in the 1950s, to which Will Beckwith’s own grandfather participated actively as Director of Public Prosecutions, working hand in hand with the Home Secretary. Hollinghurst thus suggests that the project of English imperialism may have in some cases been interwoven with a history of homosexual desire. He shows in particular how the traditional aristocratic order transmitted through the public schools, with their prefects and fags for example, was transferred onto the colonial empire, turned into a huge playing ground with high-ranking officials in decision-making positions prone to betray infantile comportments in some instances.

14Firbank, for his part, illustrates another facet of the tightly interlaced connections between the colonial centre and its dominions. If his neurasthenic refusal of the male world of health and athleticism prevented him from joining in the colonial adventure, he nonetheless co-opted the inhabitants of distant, exotic islands amidst his fantasies of insouciance and curvaceous nonchalance, camping them in the process. In Prancing Nigger which takes place in a West Indian republic (compounded of Cuba and Haiti), a family of black people intent on getting into society are described with inconsequential levity:

In a rocking-chair, before the threshold of a palm-thatched cabin, a matron with broad, bland features and a big, untidy figure surveyed the scene with a nonchalant eye. Beneath some tall trees, bearing flowers like flaming bells, a few staid villagers sat enjoying the rosy dusk, while, strolling towards the sea, two young men passed with fingers intermingled. (Firbank 1981, 96)

15In the last pages of The Swimming Pool Library Hollinghurst reintroduces Firbank through a short piece of film: ‘The bright white square at which we had been looking was convulsed with running black and grey, and white flashes . . . it was a bona fide queen. He had on elegant, unEnglish light suiting, with a bow-tie and a broad-brimmed straw hat which gave him a sweetly arcadian character’ (285). In Hollinghurst’s fiction, through the trope of cinematic screening, Firbank is made to impersonate bodily the inscription of his own orchidaceous prose as he is shown moving asymmetrically and a-rhythmically in broken walk like a jactitating marionette. There is definitely something Chaplinesque about Firbank’s fidgets, however Hollinghurst does not stop at the choreographic and the exotic in his treatment of the Edwardian author and it is probably in his essays that he has pushed furthest his exploration of what may be construed as an aesthetic of the outrageous.

An Aesthetic of the Outrageous

16In stark contrast with Osbert Sitwell, who insists on Firbank’s artistic solipsism: ‘Here was to be found a new if minute world, which existed by its own pulse of time and exhibited its own standards of behavior’ (Firbank 1981, ix), Hollinghurst, in his Northcliffe Lecture, underscores the iconoclastic and outrageous image attached to the artist. To do so, he goes beyond mere anecdotal remarks bearing on the man, to address his writing, notably his style and typography. The essay thus adumbrates what could be seen as an aesthetic of the outrageous. To begin with, Hollinghurst posits the consubstantial link between the artist’s essential self and his work: ‘he wasn’t a poseur, the aesthetic realm was his genuine habitat’ (12). This is of course a hint at Firbank’s absorption in the manner and legend of Wilde, Beardsley, and more generally the Yellow Nineties, but also the acknowledgment of a logical connection between an eccentric personality and an overly disconcerting way of writing.

17Firbank, however, is never forthright on sexual issues in the way Hollinghurst was in his early fictions: The Swimming Pool Library, The Folding Star or The Spell. He never set out to write an explicitly gay novel of the type E. M. Forster had planned with Maurice and which writers like James Baldwin or Gore Vidal were later to publish with respectively Giovanni’s Room and The City and the Pillar; in other words fictions dealing openly with the homosexual condition. In a sense, Firbank was probably closer to James through his preference for merciful indirection, a spontaneous tendency towards the enigmatic and latency of meaning. He dodged the question of the relation between the sexes by immersing his fictions in the world of female society picturing spinsters, widows, grass widows, nuns and so forth. Hollinghurst speaks of ‘emotional transvestism’ (Firbank 2000, xiii) to suggest that it is by adopting a resolutely feminine viewpoint that the Edwardian writer manages to drop in passing covert allusions to his own homosexuality. In The Flower Beneath the Foot for example, the spinsters and widows of the English colony discuss the advantages of being alone and peruse catalogues of high Camp artistry. Admittedly, this hardly qualifies Firbank for the outrageous, so where exactly does Hollinghurst find Firbank’s dissidence, and by extension, his potentially deviant ethos?

18It may derive from the writer’s unprecedented use of the inconsequential to begin with. It is a feature on which both Sitwell and Hollinghurst agree even if only the latter explores it in any depth. Firbank’s novels have the aeration of a play-text. Much talk is going on in them, but instead of showing constructive conversations they report the vapid, fashionable chatter of the time. The method is compositional rather than narrative in so far as it does not aim so much at identifying speakers exchanging viewpoints consistently as at foregrounding the exclamatory oratory of parroting in worldly society. Through juxtaposed conversational fragments randomly picked up as if by a roving microphone, Firbank undermines the meaningfulness of human discourse to expose coruscating nonsense, which may, according to the reader, produce hilarity or utter dismay:

‘You are very musical, Miss Corba, I should say?’ enquired the poetess, after having mesmerized a plate of bread and butter.
Lobelia looked very pleased.
‘Oh no! I am not very musical,’ she replied modestly, ‘but mamma is.’
‘I always said I should have liked to marry Paderewski,’ said Mrs Corba.
‘And you married a captain in the Navy! How inconsistent!’
‘Not so inconsistent as you think,’ remarked Lobelia.
‘Mamma always says that papa reminded her of Lohengrin, which is her favourite opera. So Paderewski being unavailable, mamma took Lohengrin!’
‘And does he remind you of Lohengrin now?’ asked Miss Tail.
‘No, the ideal only lasted a fortnight. We spent our honeymoon yachting in the Mediterranean, and . . .’
‘Mamma is not a good sailor,’ interposed Lobelia . . .
‘This is unhappily an age of facts and realities,’ said Miss Tail. ‘There is no romance in modern life.’
‘I should have loved to have lived in the Bible period,’ said Lobelia religiously. ‘How beautiful to have followed the Saints!’ Lobelia was engaged to a clergyman.’ (Firbank 1991, 25–26)

19With Firbank narrative is thus turned into a mosaic of bright fragments and, through this engagement with aestheticism, the normative claims of morality are loosened. The Camp proffering of the trivial alongside the serious pre-empts any attempts to prioritise the arguments according to their degree of importance. Any reference to a well-established frame of values is therefore prevented: the Bible is a park-land where Saints may be chased for matchmaking in flippant insouciance. Likewise, there is no clear plotline any longer but a profusion of appearing and disappearing subplots with narratives possibilities left pending. The whole textual fabric is subjected to this delightful deliquescence and critics have repeatedly pointed up the quirks in Firbank’s style and typography: ‘the eccentric placing of words’; ‘the comic juxtaposition of pompous diction and colloquialisms’; ‘twisting sentences into curious and unprecedented patterns’; ‘the characteristic use of italics to give an equivocal emphasis to a perfectly ordinary remark’; (Brooke 8 and 10) to say nothing of violently illogical statements. The inconsequential is by definition beyond bounds and over the top; that is nominally outrageous.

20In following Hollinghurst’s line of argument there is another way to construe Firbank’s outrageousness. The contemporary novelist speaks of his predecessor’s ‘outré mature work,’ (Firbank 2000, xii) which means that Firbank’s writings do not lend themselves to any neat literary classification and cannot be fitted into any of the usual categories: ‘It is frivolous stuff, and how rare, how precious is frivolity! How few writers can prostitute all their powers!’ (Forster 139) Firbank’s work is outré because it is out-of-the way. For example, he is a war-writer in the sense that he wrote a significant part of his output: Vainglory (1915), Inclinations (1916), Caprice (1917) and partly Valmouth (1919) while he lived at Oxford in near seclusion during the war years. But these fictions eschew the characteristic tropes of wartime writing. In these fictional worlds, the reality of wartime England is transposed into a neo-pastoral landscape in which characters pursue their separate pleasures, away from the pressures of institutional drives towards hetero-normativity and patriotic commitments. They are literally out-of-the way, that is: away from it all and shamelessly so, by shirking their duties, to embrace erotically-charged pacifism.

  • 5 This is meant as a clear allusion to Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918).

21Outré, therefore, entails the lack of fit between a situation and what the standard responses this situation would logically call for; in Firbank’s example such unfitness, or perhaps misfitness, concerns the Establishment’s very foundations. On the question of religion, Firbank, like many of his admired fin de siècle decadents, was received into the Catholic Church. This occurred in 1907, but soon after, in 1909, having been rejected in his whimsical attempt to join the Guardian Nobile in the Vatican, he felt free to lampoon Roman Catholicism. Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, from many respects a self-portrait, is Firbank’s best illustration of such settling-of-scores, notably by mingling sanctity and smut. The cardinal’s eponymous eccentricities include among other things the baptism of pet-dogs in the cathedral and an unsuitable passion for choir boys. In one of the best-known passages, from the Vatican salons, Pope Tertius II pompously skits on Queen Victoria, in a way which would have no doubt appealed to Lytton Strachey himself:5

‘The dear santissima woman,’ the Pontiff sighed, for he entertained a sincere, if brackish, enthusiasm for the lady who for so many years had corresponded with the Holy See under the signature of The Countess of Lostwaters.
‘Anglicans . . .? Heliolaters and sun-worshippers,’ she had written in her most masterful hand, ‘and your Holiness may believe us,’ she had added, ‘when we say especially our beloved Scotch.’ (Firbank 1981, 302)

22Now the question arises of whether Hollinghurst, after pleading so convincingly the cause of Firbank, his forerunner, falls back into tepid waters in his own fiction-writing, or lives up to the intoxicating promise of this inspiring maverick figure.

23To conclude it might be reminded that Hollinghurst’s insistence on visibility is in his first novel The Swimming Pool Library is all pervasive, in particular through the scopic drive prompting the crude depiction of same-sex scenes and, to all intents and purposes, doing away with the refined effeminacy of Camp. Yet, what is striking when re-reading this novel today is the almost schizophrenic split in the main narrator’s testimony. Indeed Will Beckwith insists on the fact that he is tugged between two versions of himself: ‘one of them the hedonist and the other—a little in the background these days—an almost scholarly figure with a puritanical set to the mouth’ (4). Over the years, the second seems to have somehow got the better of the former. Significantly, in one of the novel’s most introspective passages, Will Beckwith compares himself to a pantomimic character: ‘like the pantomime character Wordsworth describes, with ‘Invisible’ written on his chest’ (5). Though it is not documented further this passing allusion refers to the theatrical Jack the Giant Killer in the Prelude:

The garb is black as death, the word
‘Invisible’ flames forth upon his chest. (The Prelude, Book 7, 286–287)

  • 6 Alan Hollinghurst and Hermione Lee, ‘What can I say? Secrets in Fiction and Biography.’ Online at: (...)

24The oxymoronic conflation of paroxysmal invisibility with the burning inscription flaunts Hollinghurst’s ambivalent appropriation of Firbank’s outrageousness by conflating the artificiality of posing with a tinge of romantic pathos which may blunt the iconoclastic edge of the Camp posturing. The Swimming Pool Library is indeed a novel from the pre-AIDS decade, fantasising a halcyon summer that is nonetheless permeated with a sense of impending doom. But it is a burst of outrage nipped in the bud from the very beginning. The biography Will Beckwith—read Alan Hollinghurst—was supposed to write of Charles Nantwich—read Ronald Firbank—was in fact never going to be: ‘“All I could write now,” I said, “would be a book about why I couldn’t write the book”’ (281). This statement from a fictitious character, with the distance of time, comes as a wry and uncanny echo to Hollinghurst’s own answer to Hermione Lee at Wolfson’s College’s Oxford Centre for Life Writing at a conference on fiction and biography earlier this year. Indeed, the novelist confessed to his having been foiled of the chance of writing a biography of Firbank as someone else had recently set out to do just the same thing, which is of course most frustrating granted that Hollinghurst insists on his having accumulated such a vast amount of material through personal dedication and relentless interest.6

25In The Stranger’s Child, his last novel to date, Hollinghurst toys with the idea that there may remain outrageous secrets concealed in the past, possibly holding their own measure of truth. These nuggets of lost existences are destined to stay forever beyond the grasp of history. However, they are like baits to the insatiable curiosity of critics. By focusing on the efforts of two generations of biographers and scholars to reconstruct the life of Cecil Valance, a War-poet, modeled on Rupert Brooke, Hollinghurst suggests that all attempts to delve into the inner recesses of former times are bound to generate competing interpretations with the prospect of getting at the real thing receding further and further. The exhibition of the outrageous has been superseded by tantalising obfuscation in a novel concerned with evasions and secreted sources as offering potential alternatives to the past as it is known to us.

26It would seem that Hollinghurst has relinquished some of the outrage that accompanied his first steps into the world of fiction-writing to embark on what amounts to the outing of past ages.

27Some of the rage may have been lost in the process.

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Babuscio, Jack, ‘Camp and Gay Sensibility,’ Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality, ed. David Bergman, Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1993, 19–37.

Bronski, Michael, Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility, Boston, MA: South End Press, 1984.

Brown, James N. and Patricia M. Sant, ‘Race, Class, and the Homoerotics of the Swimming-Pool Library,’ Postcolonial and Queer Theories, ed. John C. Hawley, Intersections and Essays (Contributions to the study of World Literature), Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001.

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1 Alan Hollinghurst in interview with Catherine Keenan, The Sydney Morning Herald, July 16, 2011.
Online at:, last accessed on February 16, 2013.

2 Self uses metaphors of abrupt metamorphoses to comment on the processes of alienation in which humans are entrapped. In Cock & Bull a passive, dull young woman sprouts a penis and an athletic rugger player grows a vagina behind his knee. Great Apes suggests the superiority of chimpunity over mankind caught in an evolutionary cul-de-sac.

3 ‘Will Self: I don’t write for readers,’ Interview with Elizabeth Day, The Observer, Sunday 5th August, 2012.
Online at:, last accessed on February 16, 2013)

4 Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp,’ 1964, Online at:, 5, last accessed on February 16, 2013.

5 This is meant as a clear allusion to Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918).

6 Alan Hollinghurst and Hermione Lee, ‘What can I say? Secrets in Fiction and Biography.’ Online at:, last accessed on February 16, 2013.

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Georges Letissier, « Alan Hollinghurst/Ronald Firbank: Camp Filiation as an Aesthetic of the Outrageous »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Georges Letissier

Université de Nantes
Georges Letissier is professor of English Literature at Nantes University, France. He has published articles both in French and English, in France and abroad (Roma: Aracne, Macmillan, Rodopi, Routledge, Dickens Quarterly) on Victorian literature (C. Dickens, G. Eliot, W. Morris, C. Rossetti) and on contemporary British fiction (P. Ackroyd, A. S. Byatt, A. Gray, A. Hollinghurst, L. Norfolk, I McEwan, G. Swift, S. Waters, J. Winterson). He authored a monograph on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (Éditions du Temps, 2005). He has edited a volume entitled Rewriting, Reprising: Plural Intertextualities, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, December 2009 and co-edited with Michel Prum a book on Darwin’s legacy in European cultures (L’Harmattan 2010). He has worked extensively on Dickens and After Dickens recently whilst keeping a keen interest in the most recent developments in contemporary British fiction-writing.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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