Is this real life?

In the chapter immediately prior to Edgar’s first proposal, Camilla, fearing for Edgar’s life at the paws of a vicious bull dog, catches her beau’s arm and asks if he’s hurt. Transported, Edgar can “hardly trust his senses, hardly believe he existed” (539). It’s unclear whether his confusion stems from his “revulsion” to Camilla’s forwardness or his subsequent hope in her “tenderness,” but, in any case, he continues in a “perturbation of hope, fear, and joy” until he (FINALLY) pops the question (540).

Camilla is, in many ways, a novel about control. The text explores which outside influences might control its characters (will Camilla submit to Mr. Tyrold or Mrs. Albery?), but it’s even more interested in whether its characters can control themselves. Camilla’s inability to control her heart and her actions is, ostensibly, the novel’s primary conflict. The final page declares that she nearly fell sacrifice to “Imprudence,” and her long string of debts testify to her obliviousness and lack of self-control (913).

Given these concerns, it’s strange that Edgar—the epitome, indeed, the paragon of restraint—can only declare his love for Camilla after losing control of himself and his very sense of existence.

But this isn’t the only time Burney brings her characters together via a loss of control.

At several points during Camilla’s guilt-induced vision, the narrator observes that she can neither control her heart nor her hand as both give voice to her willingness to die (874-875). Her inability to control her own passing induces her to ask for a parson, which, in turn, brings Edgar back into her life. After learning that Edgar remains at the hotel, her thoughts echo Edgar’s sentiment from the bull dog incident: “She doubted all around her, doubted what she heard, doubted even her existence” (879). Shortly thereafter, Edgar once again proposes marriage.

The circumstances surrounding each incident are different, of course. Camilla’s loss of control does not lead her into felicity in the same manner as Edgar’s. But it’s significant, I think, that both proposals are in close proximity to one of the two main characters doubting their existence. In a novel about the dangerous of obliviousness, why do Edgar and Camilla come together only after they feel themselves slip into oblivion?

The answer to this question might shed light on the social critique Burney attempts in the novel. While Camilla rightly feels the weight of her imprudence, the text also suggests that self-awareness has its own set of drawbacks. Camilla’s “naturalness” is what initially draws Edgar to her side, but she nearly loses him when she acts disingenuously with Sir Sedley. Edgar, in turn, must first forget himself and his own anxieties before he can ask for Camilla’s hand.

In this way, perhaps, Burney could be pushing back against social norms that value reason and self-control as the guiding virtues to which all young people should aspire. Edgar and Camilla come together (at least in part) in what can only be described as moments of temporary insanity. These situations are not optimal, of course, but in a world controlled by a strict code of social etiquette, maybe love needs a little crazy to end in happiness.

(This is the video the title references, if you need a laugh: “David After Dentist”)

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