‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. ‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.
—Jane Austen, from Northanger Abbey
This is a pretty fantastic summary of my feelings about Fanny Burney and Camilla in general. First of all, a bit about the author: born in 1752, she was self-educated and became a rather famous diarist (her diaries are fabulous), novelist, playwright, and general woman of letters in a time when this wasn’t quite as common—especially considering she supported herself AND her family with her writing. She married a French exile and military general late in life, had a child at 43, and traveled all over Europe. In 1810 she and her husband suspected she had developed breast cancer; a year later, she underwent a mastectomy without anesthesia, and lived to write a riveting account of the experience. She died in 1840.
On to Camilla. A bit of a daunting epic at almost 1000 pages, this is one of the grandmothers of the genre of comic novels. The influence that Austen drew from Burney is palpable; though Burney’s writing is a little more flowery, less dry and obviously sarcastic than Austen, the pointed social critiques centered around young women’s marriage prospects, the parade of ridiculous characters designed to stand in the way of the heroine’s progress… And as in Austen, at the end everyone gets what they deserve, though Burney seems more apt to believe that even the most incorrigible people can be redeemed (with some small exceptions, as there is one character in Camilla at least that is almost so awful and evil that it can’t quite be believed).
The plot centers around a trio of young sisters, beautiful, meek Lavinia; charming and emotional Camilla, and bookish, sweet Eugenia, deformed by smallpox, as well as their rakish brother Lionel (who often steals the show with his ridiculous dialogue). In addition, their “lovely automaton” of a cousin, Indiana, provides some antagonistic qualities as a beautiful but vapid foil to the more moral and feeling Tyrold sisters. Many fortunes are changed when Sir Hugh, their unlearned, generous, and impractical uncle first gifts Camilla with the promise of inheriting his fortune and then, when he becomes inadvertently responsible for Eugenia’s deformities by exposing her to small pox, shifts the fortune to her, inadvertently almost ruining the lives of more than one person.
The book follows these youths as they grow; Camilla is in love with Edgar Mandlebert, a somewhat priggish and undeserving suitor (you can almost see the genesis of Edward Ferrars or Edmund Bertram in him), but a series of unfortunate and increasingly ridiculous events conspire to keep them apart, not the least of which is the suspicion of Edgar’s tutor Dr. Marchmont that Camilla is disinterested or unworthy. And it only gets more ridiculous from there.
A number of fantastic comic grotesques pad out the pages of the novel, from the ridiculously self-serving Miss Margland, the “cracked” scholar Dr. Orkbourne, never to be parted from his books, the almost impossibly awkward Mr. Dubster, the foppish but kind Sir Sedley… on and on it goes. Their antics are worth reading the book, alone.
As for the main character, Camilla is almost too good to be believed, of the usual mold of 18th century heroines. She is saved from being too sickly sweet by Burney’s witty writing and her own sometimes horrifying naivete. Characters like the shrewd and widowed Mrs. Arlbery provide a sarcastic commentary pointing out the foibles of Camilla and her cowardly beau, Edgar, and preventing the whole thing from being too disingenuous. And the plot is intricate enough, though not complicated (comedy of errors ending in marriages, oh so many marriages) that it can easily keep one’s interest.
It saddens me that Burney is neglected outside of certain niche studies; she really deserves to be read more often. Next up is her epistolary novel, Evelina.