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).

Friday, January 28, 2022

Common Doctor

 Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church. From his commentary on Colossians (c.3 l.1):

The benefit that we have received is that, with the resurrection of Christ, we also have risen. And we have risen in two ways. First, by a hope for our bodily resurrection: now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Cor 15:12). In the second way, with the resurrection of Christ we are restored to the life of justice: he was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification (Rom 4:25). Paul is saying in effect: when Christ arose, you also arose: he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus (2 Cor 4:14).

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Jotting on the Hollow Brazen Horse

 When Glaucon tells the story of the Ring of Gyges in Book II of the Republic, he includes an interesting detail:

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he, stooping and looking in, saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.

The hollow bronze horse (hippon khalkoun) with doors is an interesting detail, and I have often wondered about it. Why Glaucon includes it, I cannot say, but I think we can make sense of Plato including it if we keep in mind the (very obviously deliberate) contrast between Gyges' descent into the underworld and the Allegory of the Cave.

Gyges descends into the underworld; the man in the Allegory of the Cave ascends out of the underworld. Gyges brings back the ring from the underworld into our world; the man in the Allegory of the Cave brings back the message of the real world into the underworld. Gyges gets the ring from an image; the man in the Allegory breaks out of the world of images. It's a common feature of Plato's dialogues for Socrates to turn his interlocutor's story upside-down, so it's not surprising to find this here. But I think we can go farther.

The hollow horse in which the heroic more-than-human body is interred could be understood as implying that the corpse is the body of a hero of the Trojan War; a hollow bronze horse with someone inside could perhaps suggest a funerary commemoration of the hollow wooden horse of the Iliad. Depictions of the Trojan Horse in art as having doors in its side long precede Plato, and it would make sense for a hero of the Trojan War to be buried in something that made reference to the war, which is something found in almost all cultures.

Later in the same book of the dialogue, Socrates begins his attack on the poets (who Adeimantus had mentioned as only praising justice for its benefits), including Homer, arguing that their lies about the gods and heroes should not be admitted in the education of the just city. One of the lies that Socrates explicitly singles out, in early Book III, is a remark by Achilles from the Odyssey. Odysseus has gone to the underworld (NB!) and met Achilles, who tells him, "I would rather be the poor slave of a poor man than ruler of the realm of the dead." This lie, suggesting that dying and going to the underworld is a terrible thing, he argues is harmful, since it makes people fear death instead of slavery; the poets should commend the underworld rather than condemn it. This particular verse ends up being of some importance, because Socrates, having condemned it in Book III, brings it up again in Book VII in the Allegory of the Cave. In the Allegory, the cave represents our world -- the Allegory flips the story again by making our world the underworld, and of our world we can then truthfully say, "Better to be the poor slave of a poor master than to live as they do."

One way to understand the Ring of Gyges -- perhaps not Glaucon's intent, but surely part of Socrates' ironic use of its ideas in his response -- is that Gyges' descent into the underworld, with its suggestion of reaching back into a legendary time with the heroic-sized body and the hollow brazen horse and other marvels, is actually a descent into the kinds of lying poetry that Socrates soon goes on to attack. Gyges descends into the tales that, as Adeimantus says, seem to imply that might makes right; from the images there he brings back what he 'learns', and uses this to achieve success (apparently) in our world. But this is to learn about our world from what is only its deceitful imitation. The man in the Allegory of the Cave, however, recognizes that our world is an underworld imitating a higher world, goes to that higher world, and brings back what he learns. Because of this, he is not good at achieving success in our world, but our kind of success is not actually the kind of success worth having because it, too, is merely an imitation of something higher, according to which might does not make right.

For a House Full of Books, and a Garden of Flowers

Ballade of True Wisdom
by Andrew Lang

While others are asking for beauty or fame,
Or praying to know that for which they should pray,
Or courting Queen Venus, that affable dame,
Or chasing the Muses the weary and grey,
The sage has found out a more excellent way--
To Pan and to Pallas his incense he showers,
And his humble petition puts up day by day,
For a house full of books, and a garden of flowers. 

Inventors may bow to the God that is lame,
And crave from the fire on his smithy a ray;
Philosophers kneel to the God without name,
Like the people of Athens, agnostics are they;
The hunter a fawn to Diana will slay,
The maiden wild roses will wreathe for the Hours;
But the wise man will ask, ere libation he pay,
For a house full of books, and a garden of flowers. 

Oh! grant me a life without pleasure or blame
(As mortals count pleasure who rush through their day
With a speed to which that of the tempest is tame)!
O grant me a house by the beach of a bay,
Where the waves can be surly in winter, and play
With the sea-weed in summer, ye bountiful powers !
And I'd leave all the hurry, the noise, and the fray,
For a house full of books, and a garden of flowers. 

Gods, grant or withhold it; your “yea” and your “nay"
Are immutable, heedless of outcry of ours :
But life is worth living, and here we would stay
For a house full of books, and a garden of flowers.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Human Frailty with Thy Secret Woes!

Ballade of Modest Confession
by Hilaire Belloc

My reading is extremely deep and wide;
And as our modern education goes—
Unique I think, and skilfully applied
To Art and Industry and Autres Choses
Through many years of scholarly repose.
But there is one thing where I disappoint
My numerous admirers (and my foes).
Painting on Vellum is my weakest point. 

 I ride superbly. When I say I 'ride'
The word's too feeble. I am one of those
That dominate a horse. It is my pride
To tame the fiercest with tremendous blows
Of heel and knee. The while my handling shows
Such lightness as a lady's. But Aroint
Thee! Human frailty with thy secret woes! 
Painting on Vellum is my weakest point. 

Painting on Vellum: not on silk or hide
Or ordinary Canvas: I suppose
No painter of the present day has tried
So many mediums with success, or knows
As well as I do how the subject grows
Beneath the hands of genius, that anoint
With balm. But I have something to disclose--
Painting on Vellum is my weakest point. 

Prince! do not let your Nose, your royal Nose,
Your large imperial Nose get out of Joint.
For though you cannot touch my golden Prose,
Painting on Vellum is my weakest point. 

 If I am ever again in an interview in which it is asked, "What would you say is your greatest weakness?" I think I may just say, "Alas, I have never been able to learn how to paint on vellum."

Tuesday, January 25, 2022


This term has had an unusually complicated start -- I was originally doing three in-person classes, then two of those got canceled and replaced by two synchronous online courses, then the last in-person class was canceled and replaced by a condensed asynchronous online course, which I'm currently doing the preparation for, and I'll likely have another asynchronous online course, assuming it makes. The difficulty, of course, is just that at this point nobody quite knows what's needed until it's needed, so there's a lot of juggling going on by everyone. In any case, I only mention it because it explains why I am still finishing up Burney's Camilla for the Fortnightly Book and why substantive posts will probably continue to be only occasional for a while.

* Sherri Irvin, Scratching an Itch (PDF)

* The Raven: A Magazine of Philosophy

* Landon Elkind & Richard Zach, The genealogy of 'v' (PDF), on the history of the notation for disjunction in symbolic logic

* Hannah Lyn Venable, The Weight of Bodily Presence in Art and Liturgy (PDF)

* Marco Masi, Randomness and Teleology in a Conscious Universe (PDF)

* Kevin DeLapp, The Metaethics of Maat (PDF)

* Jannik Bhur, Why the Dunning-Krueger Effect Is Probably Not Real

* Xiaoyan Hu, The Notion of 'Qi Yun' (Spirit Consonance) in Chinese Painting (PDF)

* Jack M. C. Kwong, How to Theorize about Hope (PDF)

* Tuomas Tahko, Possibility Precedes Actuality (PDF). I'm not really convinced, but it's an interesting argument.

* Jacob Andrews, Conformed by Praise: Xunzi and William of Auxerre on the Ethics of Liturgy (PDF)

* Brendan Hodge, How shifting U. S. demographics will change the abortion conversation. A lot of this is tied, I suspect, to something I've often thought, which is that wide support for abortion seems closely tied to how much people are entangled in a system and way of life that requires something like it.

* Bryan L. Frye, Toxic Public Goods (PDF)

* Matthew Loftus, We Already Jumped, on virtue and modern medical practice

* Daniel Muñoz, Obligations to Oneself, at the SEP

Monday, January 24, 2022

The Gentleman Saint

 Today is the feast of St. Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church. From An Introduction to the Devout Life, Part I, Chapter II:

The world, looking on, sees that devout persons fast, watch and pray, endure injury patiently, minister to the sick and poor, restrain their temper, check and subdue their passions, deny themselves in all sensual indulgence, and do many other things which in themselves are hard and difficult. But the world sees nothing of that inward, heartfelt devotion which makes all these actions pleasant and easy. Watch a bee hovering over the mountain thyme;—the juices it gathers are bitter, but the bee turns them all to honey,—and so tells the worldling, that though the devout soul finds bitter herbs along its path of devotion, they are all turned to sweetness and pleasantness as it treads;—and the martyrs have counted fire, sword, and rack but as perfumed flowers by reason of their devotion. And if devotion can sweeten such cruel torments, and even death itself, how much more will it give a charm to ordinary good deeds? We sweeten unripe fruit with sugar, and it is useful in correcting the crudity even of that which is good. So devotion is the real spiritual sweetness which takes away all bitterness from mortifications; and prevents consolations from disagreeing with the soul: it cures the poor of sadness, and the rich of presumption; it keeps the oppressed from feeling desolate, and the prosperous from insolence; it averts sadness from the lonely, and dissipation from social life; it is as warmth in winter and refreshing dew in summer; it knows how to abound and how to suffer want; how to profit alike by honour and contempt; it accepts gladness and sadness with an even mind, and fills men’s hearts with a wondrous sweetness.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Undefeated Enemy

by Hilaire Belloc 

It freezes: all across a soundless sky
The birds go home. The governing dark's begun.
The steadfast dark that waits not for a sun; 
The ultimate dark wherein the race shall die.
Death with his evil finger to his lip
Leers in at human windows, turning spy
To learn the country where his rule shall lie
When he assumes perpetual generalship.

The undefeated enemy, the chill
That shall benumb the voiceful earth at last,
Is master of our moment, and has bound
The viewless wind itself. There is no sound.
It freezes. Every friendly stream is fast.
It freezes, and the graven twigs are still.