Adding to the gaiety of nations

Peter Parker on the life of a high-camp rebel at the heart of the 18th-century Establishment; Horace Walpole: The Great Outsider by Timothy Mowl, John Murray, pounds 19.99
It is an interesting fact that a number of the principal monuments of the 18th-century Gothic revival were the products of what might be called a homosexual sensibility: M.G. Lewis's The Monk; William Beckford's Vathek and Fonthill Abbey; and Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and Strawberry Hill. The extravagant, gossipy, effeminate Walpole gave every appearance of being a "Finger-twirler" (the 18th century's "decent word for Sodomite"), but his great 20th century champion and editor, Wilmarth Lewis, insisted that Walpole was entirely sexless. In order to make this claim, Lewis was obliged to explain away a number of Walpole's love letters to men, either as unfortunate examples of the "unmanly abandon" with which men of the period expressed themselves, or - in one absurd case - as "written in the character of one of the mistresses" of Lord Lincoln.

According to Timothy Mowl's genuinely revelatory biography, Walpole had no need to adopt the persona of one of Lincoln's lovers. The two men had conducted a passionate affair, largely on the continent, which ended only when Lincoln was married off for dynastic reasons. Furthermore, Walpole's circle included a large number of homosexual men several of whom twirled rather more than their fingers. All this would be mere fascinating tittle- tattle were it not for the fact that Walpole was a highly influential figure, not only during his lifetime, but posthumously, as the author of two volumes of memoirs about the reigns of George I and 11 and an enormous number of letters, eventually published in 48 volumes. These books give a persuasively lively chronicle of the 18th-century, one which has coloured the accounts of later historians, without being nearly as objective as it pretends. Mowl contends, for example, that far from being the "time- serving old bumbler" he appears in Walpole's memoirs the much maligned Duke of Newcastle was "one of the greatest Prime ministers of the 18th century". The reason Walpole ridiculed the Duke was that Newcastle was the uncle of Walpole's beloved Lincoln and had been responsible for bringing his wayward nephew to heterosexual heel. Thus is history rewritten as revenge.

Another of Walpole's great loves was his cousin Henry Conway, whose advancement he successfully managed. Despite an inglorious military career and no very great political gifts, Conway rose through Walpole's influence to high government office. Walpole was the son of a prime minister and served as an MP, but he preferred scheming to direct political action, and became a sort of eminence rose. The combination of his patronage of Conway and his scurrilous pamphleteering nearly put an end to his career when he was "outed", as Mowl puts it, by a political enemy. He survived the scandal, however, to publish the hugely popular Otranto and throw open Strawberry Hill to the public.

Mowl maintains quite rightly that Walpole's homosexuality is crucial to any proper understanding of the man's life and work. His determinedly forthright approach to the subject, while laudable in theory, in practice leads to some problems of register and a number of unwise generalisations. Referring to John Chute, one of the so-called "Committee of Taste" responsible for the building of Strawberry Hill, as a "defiantly affected old queen" seems fair enough, but to conjure up the dubious image of "a typical `queer's victim'" seems unfortunate and, in the context beside the point. Mowl's airy assertion that "oustandingly beautiful men" are likely to be bisexual is not, alas, tenable, nor is it true that "the plain are usually normal in their sexual proclivities". Mowl warns us against "political correctness", but what we have here represents a failure of common sense,

Of Gothic revivalism, Mowl writes that, while "there was no covert conspiracy to subvert wholesome classical design", a style, dependent upon elaborate ornamentation "may have had a particular attraction for homosexuals". He attempts to illustrate this point by listing a number of "bachelor" architects involved in the revival (not all of them homosexual), but the real point is that, in Christopher Isherwood's famous formulation in The World in the Evening, Gothic is camp about architecture. "True High Camp always has an underlying seriousness," one of Isherwood's characters explains. "You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of artifice and elegance." Walpole's life, his writing and his building projects exemplify high camp, or what Mowl calls "deviant aesthetics". These aesthetics proved highly influential, popularising both the Gothic novel and an eclectic style of architecture later embraced by the Victorians.

In his opening sentence, Mowl warns that Walpole was not "in any normal sense, a pleasant and acceptable person". He is nevertheless one who has exerted a "dubious fascination" over his biographer. That fascination has produced a lively and absorbing book, the flaws of which are outweighed by its considerable merits. Half intrigued, half appalled, Mowl describes a life that was far from exemplary, but which certainly added, in every sense, to the gaiety of the nation. The most sympathetic person in the book is poor besotted Thomas Gray whom Walpole treated abominably. The irony is that had Walpole behaved any better, Gray would not have become a melancholic and written his famous elegy, which Walpole himself published by way of reparation.

Mowl's subtitle is well chosen. Walpole was "a potent rebel in the heart of a nation's establishment", to which he was linked by his family but from which he was distanced by his nature. There are parallels here with that other great rebel whose work was inextricably linked with his sexuality, Oscar Wilde. As with Wilde, it was Walpole's equivocal relationship with the society through which he so observantly moved that made him such a good commentator on its fashions and follies. He had a stronger sense of self-preservation than Wilde, however, and he ended his days doting upon small dogs, rather than feasting with panthers; a happy ending of sorts.