The loucheness of the conservative novelist: Angela Thirkell writes about camp

Here’s an extract from my next book, due out in July. This bit is about how Angela Thirkell, that most proper and dictatorial enforcer of correct social behaviour in her novels from the 1930s to the 1950s, let herself go when chortling with the girls about sex. 

Angela Thirkell
Angela Thirkell

Thirkell’s great lesbian creations of Miss Hampton and Miss Bent, who first appeared in Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940), are two marvellous hard-drinking eccentrics unconnected with the aristocracy or the gentry (who are Thirkell’s usual subjects). Their lesbianism is celebrated briskly with sly innuendo, and Miss Hampton is one of Thirkell’s strongest authoritative figures. Thirkell had introduced homosexual characters in some of her earlier novels, but with less affection or admiration, and with a clearly gendered treatment.

Thirkell’s male homosexuals were defined by their petty malignancy and coded dressing. In Wild Strawberries (1934) Lionel Harvester of the BBC wears his Fair Isle sweater tucked inside his trousers, and his friend Mr Potter has hair that waves ‘quite naturally’. Mr Harvester’s aunt, Lady Dorothy Bingham, brays: ‘I’d let my girls go out with him, but I don’t know that I’d let my boys’. But when he inherits four thousand a year, this persuades Joan Stevenson to accept his proposal of a companionate marriage. Money overcomes effeminacy, and gives a girl independence. In Marling Hall (1942) Lionel continues to be associated with malice and petulance. He has written a book about the BBC after inheriting his fortune (so he no longer needs his job), but his scathing exposé hardly sells at all. The even more horrible Fritz Warbury carries his embroidery around with him in a handbag, which establishes him as being either a foreigner or camp, since no British male character since E F Benson’s Georgie Pillson has embroidered in public. Thirkell’s appreciation for the performance of male camp behaviour is revealed in an unpublished letter of 1945, in which she describes meeting Ivor Novello in a very malicious manner. Her resentful depiction of male homosexuals seems mean-spirited when contrasted with her affectionate portraits of Miss Hampton and Miss Bent.

Miss Hampton’s obvious homosexuality accentuates her social authority and the awed respect she receives for her capacity for strong drink. She is a noted author, and first appears in Cheerfulness Breaks In as ‘a rather handsome woman with short, neatly-curled grey hair, not young, in an extremely well-cut black coat and skirt, a gentlemanly white silk shirt with collar and tie, and neat legs in silk stockings and brogues, holding a cigarette in a very long black holder’. Her first words are ‘Come in and have a drink’, which she and her companion Miss Bent do with no obvious effects. She is also a direct challenge to mealy-mouthed attitudes to sex and sexuality. ‘“So you keep a boys’ school; and in London; interesting; much vice? […] We’re all men here and I’m doing a novel about a boy’s school, so I might as well know something about it. I’m thinking of calling it ‘Temptation at St Anthony’s’.”’ British obscenity laws were stringent between the wars, making an amusing joke of Miss Hampton’s award of the Banned Book of the Month. Thirkell makes quite a few stealth jokes about sexuality that have a camp insouciance, in strong contrast to her otherwise default tone of extreme social conservatism. Miss Bent mentions Rory Freemantle in passing, and the narrative voice adds a reference later to Aurora Freemantle, but only those who had read Compton Mackenzie’s roman-à-clef Extraordinary Women (1928) would have known that this was a lesbian character. Miss Hampton’s bracing though faithful lesbian lifestyle must have been eye-opening for conservative readers. Miss Bent remarks, adoringly: ‘“Hampton does plunge so in bed when she is Writing.”’