Go back fifty years and you will meet a young man who as a teenager had read a handful of Victorian novels and been devastated by one (The Mayor of Casterbridge) but who now had a complete understanding of what was wrong with the genre. These were novels in which an invisible but omniscient narrator created the trompe l’oeil illusion of a real world, tricking us into tears and laughter which diverted us from the temptation to engage in serious critical reflection on the moral and political values for which those novels provided a vehicle. But now grown up, I had learnt – and in three languages – what the alternative was. In Latin, larvatus prodeo [I wear a mask] anchored the idea that if you are wearing a mask then you should point to it as you advance on the stage, that you should make clear that what you are engaged in is the product of artifice and an artificer. In German, Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt [alienation effect] was the means by which playwright or author could avoid the crime of jerking (fake) tears and laughter from audience or reader by simply emphasising (frequently) that this is only pretend – a thought experiment, if you like - and you are meant to be thinking not wiping away the tears. In Russian, Shklovsky’s остранение [defamiliarization] labelled the ways in which a verbal artist could make the familiar strange and thereby prompt reflection rather than emotional self- indulgence.
Problem sorted. Farewell the Victorian novel.
Fifty years later and I am reading Anthony Trollope. I read The Warden and enjoyed it and now I’ve just finished Barchester Towers (1857) and enjoyed that too and no doubt in part because it provides so much grist for my anti-clericalism. But what sticks out a mile [larvatus prodeo] is an author who is all over the text, hopelessly intrusive, and very very funny. And if I had to identify the style I would call it High Camp (which may well pair with High Church which, if anything, is the religious value which the novel defends).
Consider this passage (page 281 in my excellent Penguin edition) towards the end of a fraught, intense, seat-edge clinging exchange between Eleanor Bold [heroine] and a bungling but genuine suitor Mr Arabin [hero]:
As she spoke she with difficulty restrained tears; but she did restrain them. Had she given way and sobbed aloud, as in such cases a woman should do, he would have melted at once, implored her pardon, perhaps knelt at her feet and declared his love. Everything would have been explained, and Eleanor would have gone back to Barchester with a contented mind. How easily would she have forgiven and forgotten the archdeacon’s suspicions had she but heard the whole truth from Mr Arabin. But then where would have been my novel?
It's laugh out loud funny. And the tone of voice (which I can only render with both hands spread open) is self-parodying camp. The reader is still in volume two of what they know (according to the Victorian conventions) is to be a three volume, triple-decker novel and will immediately understand the author’s words. And when we do get to volume three we get (at page 415) this:
But we must go back a little and it shall be but a little, for a difficulty begins to make itself manifest in the necessity of disposing of all our friends in the small remainder of this volume. Oh, that Mr Longman [Trollope’s publisher] would allow me a fourth! It should transcend the other three as the seventh heaven transcends all the lower stages of celestial bliss.
And that’s high camp. I rest my case.