Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Monday Classic: Camilla, or A Picture of Youth

Author: Fanny Burney
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1796

As per usual, when I deign to review a bestseller, it's a bestseller from a previous century. Ah well.

Camilla is my least favorite Burney novel.* Why am I reviewing it, you might ask? For one, it's the first one I saw when I thought it might be fun to review a Burney novel and glanced up at my bulging shelves of 18th century doom. For another, I frequently irritate people who bother to listen to me in person about these things (Hi, Mom!!) with rants about my least favorite fictional "hero" of all time, Edgar Stick-Up-The-Ass Mandlebert, and figured I might as well finalize my rant for posterity.**

While Camilla is the titular heroine of the novel, the book also relates the upbringing and romantic adventures of her sisters, Eugenia and Lavinia, and her cousin Indiana. Edgar is Camilla's father's ward, and he grows up with the girls and the three sisters' brother, Lionel.

There are many more names of this sort. I will spare you. All of the main characters, named or unnamed here, are upper-class English ladies and gentlemen of their period; if you don't already know all that entails, go look it up and then come back.

The first part of the book deals with these characters' early youth, during which it's established that Indiana is gorgeous and has the personality of a custard, Camilla is naive but not stupid, Lavinia is utterly forgettable in all respects, and Eugenia is . . . well, let's just use this snappy quote from Wikipedia to sum up her lot in life:

Eugenia is disfigured [by smallpox] but survives, only to suffer a tragic see-saw accident which leaves her further maimed and crippled.***

Because she's too shy -- for, I think, perfectly legitimate reasons -- to venture out in public much, Eugenia spends her time in reading and study, becoming quite the learned scholar. She also happens to be the only truly appealing one out of the whole brood. Her main function in the novel is to induce guilt in others; she almost never does this on purpose, though, being too kind and pleasant for that, which creates a dysfunctional family dynamic with which almost everyone with a family will be familiar.

Camilla herself isn't so bad; the family as a whole is the dullest passel of sermonizing morons that you could ever hope to find, but she, toward the middle of the story, finds a few friends of her own who are the sort of witty, sophisticated, wig-sporting drunkards who gave the 18th century a good name. Unfortunately, she's hampered in her efforts to get a life by dear, beloved Edgar.

Ah, Edgar. He unites all the qualities a young lady swoons over in one misogynistic, self-righteous, egocentric, lecturing, self-satisfied, priggish package, all tied up with a ribbon made from his unjustified sense of entitlement. Presumed to be as good as engaged to the lovely Indiana -- because of his own shallow taste in women and poor judgment, I might add -- he moans about it until he's able to dump her and pursue Camilla instead. But horrors! Camilla too proves unworthy of the ultimate gift from God, Edgar's love, when she is kissed -- only once, and entirely against her will -- by another man. Edgar flees this scene of female iniquity, cast down into a pit of despair because one he had almost thought pure enough to receive the fire of his holy loins (but only in matrimony, of course, don't think for one second he's actually red-blooded or anything) should, through being physically weaker than some jerk who got her alone for a second, allow herself to be so filthified. When she could have had HIM!

To Camilla's credit, she finds his reaction just a touch over the top, and he eventually has to grovel a bit to get her back.

To her eternal discredit, he gets her back.

Typically for novels of this period, the bare bones of the story (four girls get married) are filled out with melodrama galore, beginning with the smallpox infection/tragic see-saw referenced above and ending with an elopement, and including a forced marriage, gambling addiction, a debtor's prison, and a crazy but well-meaning uncle in there somewhere for seasoning.

There are many fascinating observations one could make about the way Camilla illuminates the social order, conventions, and manners of its time. As all of those observations have already been made in detail by prosy Ph.D. candidates, let us just take all of the feminist academic claptrap as read and move on to the interesting part: what should have happened in the end of the story if Burney had had me to nag her.

If she had, "Frances," I would have said, "Fanny is a silly name. I shan't address you by it, although I regret to inform you that posterity will remember you that way. Camilla should ditch that ass Edgar and let him run off with Dr. Marchmont, his dreadful woman-hating tutor. The two of them are actually soulmates, and in another time would wear matching starched pajamas to bed together at night while being closeted investment bankers by day."

Please picture Fanny Burney taking copious notes. "In addition, Frances," I would have added, "The tragic see-saw was a stroke of bloody genius, don't let anyone tell you differently, but Eugenia deserves better than to be the second choice of a crazy poetry loon. However, he's good looking, so I suppose I'll let that pass. Remove Lavinia entirely, as she serves no purpose but to marry her uncle's old friend's intolerably pudding-faced and pudding-brained son and to pad your word count."

And lastly, I would have told her that Camilla really ought to have married the man who pulled her aside and kissed her (rakish, foppish jerk though he is throughout much of the book), because a) he actually seemed to like her, unlike perfect prissy-pants Edgar and b) he stuck around and helped her obnoxious brother while Edgar ran off to bitch -- endlessly! -- about how much he hated all those nasty gross women, leaving Camilla in the lurch when she needed a friend the most.

In a slightly more feminist-theory vein, since it seems I can't help myself, Camilla, like Evelina, contains several female characters who are explicitly portrayed as significantly more intelligent, witty, and knowledgeable than the men around them. (It's hard not to think Burney put a bit of herself into the slightly older, brilliant female secondary characters who populate her novels, this one included.) The fact that these women are not often considered praiseworthy by the other characters is interesting mainly because sarcastic, intelligent women generally haven't been appreciated much anywhere or at any time. Feminists would say that's because help, help, we're being oppressed; I'd say that it's because no one, male or female, likes being mocked by someone smarter than they are; and Fanny Burney would probably say, just live like a decent human being and to hell with anyone who thinks you're strange. That's one of the many reasons she's one of my favorite writers.

She's also a favorite writer of mine because she's a damn good writer. As the book's subtitle A Picture of Youth would suggest, Camilla offers realistic, funny, and often pathetic portrayals of every weakness and error that youth is prone to. I first read Camilla when I was too young to realize how stupid young people are, but it's grown on me since then.

I did say that Camilla is my least favorite Burney novel. Even so, and despite Edgar and his perfectly ironed underwear****, I still prefer it to most other books. Four stars.

* If anyone cares, Cecilia, Evelina, Camilla. These can be easily distinguished from other first-name-named novels of the same period, such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, by the fact that the heroines aren't threatened with rape quite as often. I'm fairly sure Camilla has only one rape, which ends, unusually for the genre, in marriage. As I recall, Pamela is one long and tedious attempted rape broken up with a few passages of moralizing, while Clarissa actually includes at least one completed rape, and also a nifty brothel.

** This in no way excuses anyone I know from listening to this rant again, in person, at any time of my choosing. (Sorry, Mom.)

*** You really have no choice but to love a novel that includes a tragic see-saw accident.

**** I can only assume.

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