Communications Overheard

For characters who place so much weight on measuring their words, the characters of Camilla seem to much more easily accept the sincerity and honesty of words betrayed. Edgar, for instance, desires “willing communication” from Camilla but time and time again is willing to take words out of context, trust words that are forced from her, or words that are overheard (555). The ultimate reconciliation between Camilla and Edgar comes from the letter meant only to be open on her death; yet Mrs. Tyrold refers to it as “some fortunate hazard” that Edgar is near when the letter is found and thus receives it (898). Her father reports that because of this Edgar says “every doubt was wholly, and even miraculously removed, by learning thus the true feelings of her heart” (898).

The happy ending comes about through such unintentional communication, and other such instances occur in the text as well. The three main means of communication in Camilla (the spoken word, the written word, and body language) each are complicated by the novel’s division of the private and public and the natural and intentional. Here I want to focus on the private, written word and body language betrayed, both of which ultimately bring about good in the story. The question: Why is it necessary for good, well-intentioned characters to rely on such shenanigans in order to understand each other at the end of the book—especially in such a moral novel, and one where Camilla is criticized for lack of thought? And what does that do to the ethics of the position of the readers, who are situated as eavesdroppers themselves?

Including the ending, there are three main instances of the private, written word betrayed: Dr. Marchmont’s “Camilla” who is posthumously betrayed by her journal, where she writes of her love for another (643); Eugenia’s secret poem which betrays her love of Melmond to the household through Mrs. Mitten (675); and Camilla’s “posthumous” letter to Edgar (898). Dr. Marchmont’s discovery cements his distrust of women and his ill-applied advice to Edgar, but Eugenia’s poem, though the cause of temporary pain, much later assists in winning over Melmond, and Camilla’s letter is instrumental in her and Edgar’s reconciliation. These communications are not meant to be received by those who read them, and so they are unsanctioned.

Communication via body language is not safe from unsanctioned reading or overhearing either, and a central instance actually sets up the ending and creates a contrast—Edgar comes across Camilla in a private moment, when she has finds herself alone and can give herself over to her tears (542). She tries hiding her tears, but he announces, “you have been weeping!” (543). Her unintentional communication via her body betrays her, and evokes the first declaration of his love (545). This is a seemingly positive outcome, but its basis on incomplete communication actually undermines its ability to last, which we can contrast with the final revelation of the letter to Edgar and his eavesdropping on her conversation with her mother. In that final revelation, all is conveyed and the unsanctioned, unintentional communication is thus followed by thoughtful revelation.

Perhaps Burney implies that the unsanctioned communication is necessary in order to reveal the passions and the natural person, but that reflection and intentional revelation is necessary in order to engage the mind. Considering the ending in relation to other incidents throughout the text, she seems to be balancing the value of the private and the natural and the public and the thoughtful, and not deciding in favor of either.

Interestingly, the readers are pulled into this dilemma as well: the unobtrusive narrator rarely mentions the readers, who are participants in eavesdropping in all the characters’ lives. By not mentioning them, or referring to the characters as fictional (which Robyn R. Warhol says ruins the illusion of reality), she increases the illusion of immersion, making the eavesdropping more ethically dubious since we’re eavesdropping on characters portrayed as real. Yet, how are we to avoid such behavior in a novel communicated in the third-person?

Perhaps we are to find our answer, or at least some understanding, in seeing the similarities in the positions of the readers and the characters. Although it seems that the moral, conscientious characters would avoid eavesdropping and violating boundaries, some of the worst and best turns in the plot come with that sort of eavesdropping and invasion of boundaries, and whether the outcome is positive or negative, the characters rely on these unsanctioned moments to make their judgments.

This topic connects to some of the main themes of the work—the importance of words and language, the public and private worlds of the characters, the relationship of the body with the heart and the mind, and the contrast between the natural and cultivated. Fundamentally, however, it seems to come down to the importance of understanding. At the beginning of the book, Burney points out that “human heart” is difficult to grasp, and in the conclusion she asks “What, at last, so diversified as man? What so little to be judged by his fellows?” (8, 913). Burney desires for us as readers to understand her characters, and as serial over-hearers ourselves, it seems we can be somewhat encouraged: revealed words can be more instrumental in reaching understanding than direct communication, however morally questionable that may seem. Perhaps it all relies on the attitude of the eavesdropper: is it resistant and suspicious, as Edgar is for much of the book, or receptive, trusting, and accepting, as he becomes? But even that is complicated by those who betray trust, such as Eugenia’s first husband—it seems we need to overhear private thoughts and feelings to confirm stated intentions, but we need to be receptive and generous towards what we overhear and allow reflection to affect our interpretation and our readings.

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