Airy Thoughtlessness or Conscious Schemes?

At the beginning of Frances Burney’s Camilla, the author describes the title character in a striking way: “[Camilla’s] qualities had a power which, without consciousness how, or consideration why, governed her whole family. The airy thoughtlessness of her nature was a source of perpetual amusement; and, if sometimes her vivacity raised a fear for her discretion, the innocence of her mind reassured them after every alarm” (51). There is something counterintuitive in this description. While I think of “thoughtlessness” as a pejorative term, Camilla’s unguarded nature yields amusement. Instead of innocence bringing fear to her family, Camilla’s naiveté offers reassurance. As a young woman, Camilla is praised for her natural openness, her “airy thoughtlessness” and “vivacity.” But does the novel endorse this way of being or just the Tyrold family?

Because of the Tyrold family’s explicit and implicit endorsement of Camilla’s thoughtlessness, I was surprised at the advice Mr. Tyrold offers in his sermon to his daughter. Camilla’s father tells her, “Struggle then against yourself as you would struggle against an enemy. Refuse to listen to a wish, to dwell even upon a possibility, that opens to your present idea of happiness” (358). Though Mr. Tyrold’s exhortation is specifically referring to Camilla’s hopes with Edgar, his advice to treat herself like an enemy contradicts the earlier description of Camilla’s qualities, attributes that her family praises in her. Rather than her “thoughtlessness,” Mr. Tyrold emboldens her to be conscious of her actions. No longer can her “innocence” reassure her father; she now must act in a knowing, affected manner.

The apparent tension between Mr. Tyrold’s sermon and the family’s earlier praise for Camilla’s qualities brings me back to the question of endorsement: Are we supposed to think Burney approves of Mr. Tyrold’s advice? Or, is the author questioning this type of injunction to go against a natural way of being?

On one hand, I think the novel supports Mr. Tyrold’s advice. If Camilla had not been so thoughtless in regards to expenses and Mrs. Mitten, then she would not have gotten into severe debt. While an open and unguarded nature might bring amusement in a secure home, these same attributes can lead to very real, very dire circumstances away from family and in public.

However, the novel also seems to question Mr. Tyrold’s exhortation. By ignoring her true feelings for Edgar, Camilla assumes various schemes that Edgar misreads and misinterprets. Had only Camilla acted with her same “airy thoughtlessness” and “vivacity,” then her relationship with Edgar might not have become so complicated. Perhaps another implied censure to Mr. Tyrold’s advice is in the scene with the singing bird. When Camilla expresses dismay that the singing bird is pinched, the man who owns the bird says, “Why how do you think one larns them dumb creturs? It don’t come to ’em natural” (493, emphasis mine). Perhaps this is a stretch, but I read this statement as an echo of Mr. Tyrold’s letter. Like the bird, Camilla is made to go against what is “natural” to her. Because of this, she puts on an affected attitude toward Edgar and constrains (or cages) herself in a way that leads to the dissolution of their union.

The questions I am raising could be a part of a rhetorical analysis of Camilla because I am trying to tease out the author’s message to the reader and there is certainly an ethical dimension to these questions. In the end, it seems that the novel—and Camilla herself—endorses a more thoughtful approach to life, especially in how suspicious the novel is toward other characters’ natural ways of being (see: Indiana, Clermont, Bellamy, Lionel). Perhaps, though, Burney is not just endorsing one side. Perhaps she shows us that there are times to act with natural thoughtlessness and there are other times we must be more conscious of our actions.

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