Saturday, January 29, 2022

Frances Burney, Camilla


Opening Passage:

Repose is not more welcome to the worn and to the aged, to the sick and to the unhappy, than danger, difficulty, and toil to the young and adventurous. Danger they encounter but as the forerunner of success; difficulty, as the spur of ingenuity; and toil, as the herald of honour. The experience which teaches the lesson of truth, and the blessings of tranquillity, comes not in the shape of warning nor of wisdom; from such they turn aside, defying or disbelieving. 'Tis in the bitterness of personal proof alone, in suffering and in feeling, in erring and in repenting, that experience comes home with conviction, or impresses to any use. 

 In the bosom of her respectable family resided Camilla. Nature, with a bounty the most profuse, had been lavish to her of attractions; Fortune, with a moderation yet kinder, had placed her between luxury and indigence. Her abode was in the parsonage-house of Etherington, beautifully situated in the unequal county of Hampshire, and in the vicinity of the varied landscapes of the New Forest. Her father, the rector, was the younger son of the house of Tyrold. The living, though not considerable, enabled its incumbent to attain every rational object of his modest and circumscribed wishes; to bestow upon a deserving wife whatever her own forbearance declined not; and to educate a lovely race of one son and three daughters, with that expansive propriety, which unites improvement for the future with present enjoyment.

Summary: After a long estrangement and a retirement from a busy life due to an injury, Sir Hugh Tyrold moves near his brother Augustus Tyrold, and it provides the opportunity for the whole family to build stronger relations. Augustus has a son, Lionel, three daughters, Lavinia, Camilla, and Eugenia, and a ward, Edgar Mandlebert; Sir Hugh has two wards, Indiana and Clermont Lynmere. Sir Hugh is a benevolent but sometimes hapless man; he always intends well, but is the sort of person whose ideas often do not fit the world very well. We see this early on. Sir Hugh decides that, since he can no longer be active, he'll need something to do, and learning Latin, which he never had a chance to learn, is a good way to do that. This turns out to be something of a mess, since Sir Hugh has no head at all for languages and the tutor who is hired is not exactly a stunning teacher. It becomes clear that it will simply not work, but Sir Hugh doesn't want to simply fire the tutor. More seriously, Sir Hugh is overindulgent, and Lionel manages to convince him to take the young people to a fair despite the danger of a smallpox outbreak; Eugenia catches smallpox. She survives this, but in a see-saw accident (also due to Sir Hugh), she is maimed even further. Wracked with guilt, Sir Hugh makes Eugenia his sole heiress and arranges to have her taught Latin and the classics with the tutor he had previously hired. In the course of the story we will find that these choices will actually add to the difficulty of Eugenia's life: men are just not in the habit of treating a disfigured woman with a very cloistered and scholarly education as marriageable (despite Sir Hugh's idea that her being fluent in Latin will attract men), but her standing to inherit a sizable fortune -- which normally would have been spread out among Sir Hugh's nephews and nieces -- will make her a potential target of golddiggers. (As a side-note, in Austen's Northanger Abbey when John Thorpe says Camilla is about nothing more than an old man learning Latin and playing see-saw, he is showing that he never read beyond the very beginning of the story.)

Sir Hugh's sweet and generous but generally bad judgment will extend to his continual scheming to get his nephews, nieces, and wards in good marriages. Indiana is extraordinarily beautiful, and Edgar clearly starts taking an interest in her, which leads Sir Hugh to start scheming to marry them to each other. Sir Hugh's other ward, Clermont, is off being educated in Europe, which leads him to hatch the idea that the highly educated Clermont might marry the highly educated Eugenia. Both of these will fall through rather spectacularly. Events will draw Edgar and Camilla closer together, and most of the book is about how the youthful follies of each keep interfering with what is obviously a good match.

And what youthful follies they are. A large portion of the book consists of the innocent (but beautiful) Camilla repeatedly failing to handle properly some situation or other with a man interested in her and Edgar misreading and over-interpreting the consequences, to endless melodramatic misunderstanding. A further subplot consists of Lionel, who is clearly a developing a gambling habit, repeatedly convincing his doting sisters and uncle to lend him money, until in the end the debts become hard to manage even for a reasonable well to do family.

The subtitle of Camilla is A Picture of Youth, and this is a good summation of the theme. There are plenty of follies to go around, not merely those of youth, but the follies of youth are what drive the story. Except for the gold-digging Bellamy who sets his eye on Eugenia, no one in the story is malicious, but they err often; the young err from inexperience and the elders often err by over-indulging youthful errors or by failing ever to correct their own youthful failings. The young have not yet learned the ways of the world, so it trips them up. They have not yet learned to assess things in the context of a life as a whole, so they continually misjudge, both by treating minor problems as more devastating than they are and by not recognizing major problems as major. And their responses are never measured:

The changeful tide of mental spirits from misery to enjoyment, is not more rapid than the transition from personal danger to safety, in the elastic period of youth. 'Tis the epoch of extremes; and moderation, by which alone we learn the true use of our blessings, is a wisdom we are frequently only taught to appreciate when redundance no longer requires its practice. (p. 889)

Much of this was interesting and enjoyable, although Edgar for the umpteenth time misinterpreting Camilla's situation and over-reacting without even getting Camilla's side of the story was getting a little wearing by the time that it resolved. I suppose I am old enough that the follies of youth, beyond a certain point, are more causes of annoyance than of sympathy.

One of the interesting things that became clear to me as I read was that this story has so many structural similarities to Mansfield Park that it seems likely that Austen was deliberately attempting to do something similar. The underlying motivations of the two stories are different -- opposed, and in fact, suspiciously opposed, since in Camilla much of what drives the story lies in Camilla's imprudence and Edgar's suspiciousness in love, while in Mansfield Park the story is heavily driven by Fanny's cautious timidity and Edmund's excess of trust in love. But there are a number of broad similarities, including the sudden turn at the end of each when the narrator stops telling the story and tells us what will happen to the characters. (It likewise might not be an accident that the heroine of MP is Frances and the hero is also an Ed.) Both works are excellent, but Mansfield Park is a much, much tighter work. Camilla has a larger cast of characters; its incidents are much much more sprawling; it does not keep the story so focused on its heroine. Even the emotional sensibility of Mansfield Park is much more cleanly packaged, based on the picturesque rather than Burney's experimentation with Gothic elements. This all contributes to making Mansfield Park a better novel. But it would be stupid to think it a criticism of Burney to say that Jane Austen herself, influenced by and learning from her, managed to get a stronger result in trying to do something broadly similar. There is a great deal in this story to love.

Favorite Passage:  

Clermont Lynmere so entirely resembled his sister in person, that now, in his first youth, he might almost have been taken for her, even without change of dress: but the effect produced upon the beholders bore not the same parallel: what in her was beauty in its highest delicacy, in him seemed effeminacy in its lowest degradation. The brilliant fairness of his forehead, the transparent pink of his cheeks, the pouting vermillion of his lips, the liquid lustre of his languishing blue eyes, the minute form of his almost infantine mouth, and the snowy whiteness of his small hands and taper fingers, far from bearing the attraction which, in his sister, rendered them so lovely, made him considered by his own sex as an unmanly fop, and by the women, as too conceited to admire any thing but himself. 

 With respect to his understanding, his superiority over his sister was rather in education than in parts, and in practical intercourse with the world, than in any higher reasoning faculties. His character, like his person, wanted maturing, the one being as distinct from intellectual decision, as the other from masculine dignity. He had youth without diffidence, sprightliness without wit, opinion without judgment, and learning without knowledge. Yet, as he contemplated his fine person in the glass, he thought himself without one external fault; and, early cast upon his own responsibility, was not conscious of one mental deficiency. (p. 569)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Frances Burney, Camilla, Oxford UP (New York: 2009).