Throughout Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla, the societal constraints on male-female friendship quickly become clear. Once Camilla reaches marriageable age, the possibility for friendship with Edgar is completely erased– the persecutions of Mrs. Margland and Indiana ascribe romantic meaning even to something as small as a geranium. There is no longer room for kindness untainted by suppositions about one’s romantic affections.
Does Camilla understand that male-female friendship is impossible in her society? On one level, it appears that she does– she recognizes, for example, that there may be something improper, or at least unusual, about Mrs. Burlinton’s intimate correspondence with her mysterious friend (who, spoiler alert, turns out to be the infamous Bellamy). Yet she defends her friend’s practice despite Edgar’s condemnation:
"Yet, in the conversations she held with him [Edgar] from time to time, she frankly related the extraordinary attachment of her new friend to some unknown correspondent, and confessed her own surprise when it first came to her knowledge. Edgar listened to the account with the most unaffected dismay, and represented the probable danger, and actual impropriety of such an intercourse, in the strongest and most eloquent terms; but he could neither appal her confidence, nor subdue her esteem. The openness with which all had originally and voluntarily been avowed, convinced her of the innocence with which it was felt, and all that his exhortations could obtain, was a remonstrance on her own part to Mrs. Berlinton. She found that lady, however, persuaded she indulged but an innocent friendship, which she assured her was bestowed upon a person of as much honour as merit, and which only with life she should relinquish, since it was the sole consolation of her fettered existence" (Book 6, Ch. 12).
From her defense of this uncommon practice, what are we as readers supposed to gain? On one hand, this sets up Camilla’s fateful naivete. No matter where she looks for friendship– Sir Sedley, Hal Westwyn, and even crusty old Lord Valhurst– she is not safe from romantic proclamations, and it is naive for her to even think so. Her kind, but merely friendly, actions cause others, including Edgar, to label her a “coquette.” There’s no such thing as the “friend zone” for Camilla, and she’s always the last to realize that she is sending the wrong social messages.
On the other hand, could Burney be setting up a social critique of the societal constraints set up to prevent and circumscribe male-female friendships? Every time Edgar and Camilla have a chance to talk to each other, they are interrupted and prevented from communicating fully. Even Edgar has this desire to remain Camilla’s friend, to give her counsel (of course, though, this is tainted by romantic interest). When he warns her against Mrs. Arlbery and Mrs. Burlinton, he consistently appeals to her on the basis of friendship:
"Tell me, candidly, sincerely tell me, can you condescend to suffer an old friend, though in the person of but a young man, to offer you, from time to time, a hint, a little counsel, a few brief words of occasional advice? and even, perhaps, now and then, to torment you into a little serious reflection?" (Book 4, ch. 1).
It seems that both Edgar and Camilla are longing for a different kind of relationship, or at least a venue for more open communication between the sexes. If so, would this perhaps change our reading of the novel from a critique of Camilla’s and Edgar’s respective misreading/naivete to a critique of their society’s constraints upon friendship?