“Let’s Just be Friends”: Camilla and the Circumscribed Desire for Male-Female Friendship

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?

Reading Pamela’s Private/Public Literacy

Gerard Terborch, “Woman Writing a Letter,” 1655

Pamela’s first letter to her parents sets up many of the themes for the remainder of the novel: Pamela’s duty to her parents, her love for writing, her thankfulness to God, and her distinction from other servants– along with potentially untoward advances by Mr. B (“and he took me by the Hand; yes, he took me by the Hand before them all” (11)). In the postscript to her first letter, she tells her parents that Mr. B has frightened her by entering her dressing room and desiring to inspect her writing. Confused, she fears that he will be angry, but he states, “I am not angry with you for writing such innocent matters as these: though you ought to be wary what tales you send out of a family…. Why, Pamela, you write a very pretty hand, and spell tolerably too. I see my good mother’s care in your learning has not been thrown away upon you” (12).

This intrusion in the first chapter sets up an interesting problem: Pamela’s developing literacy cannot stay private. But, as her father questions, why should Pamela’s literacy be a matter of public discussion at all? “Why should he take such a poor girl as you by the hand, as your letter says he has done twice? Why should he stoop to read your letter to us; and commend your writing and spelling? And why should he give you leave to read his mother’s books?” This is indeed the question in the reader’s mind as s/he delves through these volumes of Pamela’s letters. Why is such a private activity such as literacy– reading or writing to oneself– suddenly of interest, not only to Mr. B, but to Pamela’s fellow servants, Mrs. Jervis, Mrs. Jewkes, Lady Davers, and then finally society at large?

I don’t have a particularly settled answer to this question, but I do have a potential method to discover the answer. Perhaps we can turn to rhetorical criticism and read Richardson’s Pamela as a literacy narrative, using the framework established by Janet Carey Eldred and Peter Mortensen. Eldred and Mortensen define this process as follows: “When we read for literacy narratives, we study how the text constructs a characters’ ongoing, social progress of language acquisition” (512). This inherent assumption– that language acquisition, in Pamela’s case and in all cases, is social– seems counterintuitive because Pamela’s writing (especially when she switches from letters to journal entries) is meant to be private. However, it seems that Pamela’s literacy from the beginning is much more public than she intends it to be.

We could also explore Pamela’s experience within the framework of the literacy myth: the assumption that literacy necessarily equals a direct path to social progress. In one way, Richardson’s text affirms the literacy myth– it is her letters that cause Mr. B. to fall for her, and which lead to her eventual social rise. Yet in another way, literacy dislodges her from her social place, just as Eldred and Mortensen discuss with relation to Eliza in Shaw’s Pygmalion. Pamela’s story could also be read as a narrative of socialization: “stories that chronicle a character’s attempt to enter a new social (and discursive) arena” (Eldred and Mortensen 513).

We might also explore Pamela’s relationship to generational literacy. If female literacy is so transgressive, what is the significance that ostensibly both her father and mother can read and write, since she addresses some letters only to her mother? Is there an added significance to the fact that she did not learn literacy from them, but from her mistress? Does this change the kind of literacy that Pamela possesses?

We also might use Deborah Brandt’s idea of literacy sponsors to recognize and explore the communal nature of Pamela’s literacy — for example, some of Pamela’s sponsors are her mistress, Mr. Longman (the kindly gentleman that gives her writing paper), her father and mother who encourage the letters, and even Mr. B by the end of the book. This might allow us to better understand why Pamela’s writing is necessarily social. It also might alert us to recognize ways in which language in the eighteenth century serves as a mark/divider of social class. Based on our understanding of literacy, we also might read Pamela more as an emerging self rather than an exploited/victimized young girl. Is it her literacy that leads us to this conclusion, as we watch her make sense of her feelings and thoughts on paper?

Conversations about gender, power, and exploitation in Pamela are valuable, but perhaps they are leading us too far away from the central issue. Maybe, however, Pamela’s literacy is at the forefront because the novel’s main theme is language itself: how it is acquired, shaped, and constructed, and how characters use it to shape their own identities.

Works Cited

Eldred, Janet Carey, and Peter Mortensen. “Reading Literacy Narratives.” College English, vol. 54, no. 5, 1992, pp. 512–539. www.jstor.org/stable/378153.

Dick Knows a Thing or Two About Marriage!!!

“It is such weary, weary work!”

He was leaning on his arm…and looking at the ground, when my darling rose, put off her bonnet, kneeled down beside him with her golden hair falling like sunlight on is head, clasped her two arms round his neck, and turned her face to me. O, what a loving and devoted face I saw!

‘Esther, dear,’ she said very quietly, ‘I am not going home again…Never any more.’


That’s right. Ada’s  not going home anymore. At least, not until she has a baby and her husband dies. Because that is what Dickens sees for poor couples. Destitution and distress. Well, not entirely. Scenes such as the above, when Esther discovers Ada and Richard’s marriage, remind us that Dickens is not a total douche when it comes to depicting marriage. He gets it — sometimes, at least. Just like the bricklayer and his wife, Ada and Richard are in for difficult times. In both homes, Dickens seems desirous of portraying the Selfish Husband as a perpetrator of discontent. However, Dickens is also sensitive to the Victorian man’s drive to provide, and the subsequent stress, emotional abuse, and health issues resulting from a man’s inability to provide for wife and child.

What is fascinating in this portrayal is Richard’s complete apathy towards Ada. She drapes herself over him, she places his head on her chest, she comes to his apartments, and she remains with him…nowhere do we see Richard’s active involvement towards her, though perhaps we are to read his obsession with the Jarndyce case as a wish to provide for her. Unsurprisingly, he does not see Ada as a real person anymore than readers of Bleak House do. Ada remains a decoration and a beam of sunlight to all but Esther and her guardian, to whom she is a real person.

This is only one example of Dickens’ stunning portrayals of marriage, both cynical and uplifting. The Dedlocks, Jellybys, Ada and Richard, and the Buckets provide a wide and fairly nuanced idea of what marriages can be (though exaggerated for drama) and the very real problems faced by young couples overwhelmed by money problems and self-absorption, old couples wearied by time, middle-aged couples distracted by the outside world, and happy, energetic, and relaxed couples understanding one another’s vision and desirous of one another’s company. Unfortunately, youth does not seem a marital virtue in Dickens’ book, and from the first instance Ada tells Esther she is not returning “home,” we know that her and Rick are doomed. That staying with her emaciated and grungy husband in a place she does not consider “home,” to nurse him in his selfish obsessions, is to dim Dickens’ superficial little sunbeam. But the one who waits, the marred one, the childless, under-appreciated Esther? She is destined for happiness. Not the little sunbeam.

Take that, Victorian patriarchy, and kudos to you, Dick.


Domesticate This!

“The drive to domesticate such public figures and to idealize them at the same time, and the important related impulse to make them visible in a veridical age…was something that Eliot could not avoid.”


While reading Dillane’s chapter, “After Marian Evans,” the concept of the projected body and the danger of a woman’s body of written work — when attached to a physical body — struck me like an abusive sister.

The glory of Victorian women writer’s was the escape of the body. As women committed themselves anonymously, or pseudonymously, to a page their bodies were empowered beyond any sphere granted them by the surrounding culture. Reading Martineau and Eliot’s periodical work reminds readers that without the burden of their visible body women could explore social, economic, and artistic avenues with authority, without so much of the gendered apologistic rhetoric demanded of their opinions in company.

However, with the popularity of photography and the Hollywood-esque lionization rapidly rising in Victorian priority lists, the demands for the literary body to become physical was a danger. Whereas a woman could be an expert in the periodical, no one would credit her an expert in person. What that means is that the original, projected, authorial body, that ethereal intelligence and wit of women writers would be grounded, staked, examined, and dissected once that body became physical and represented through photography. The sight of a woman’s body also recalls the concept of the woman’s sphere. Seated and demure, serious, small — the woman’s sphere, replicated in the limited scope of a physical portrait, reminds the audience (particularly the male audience) that the ideas expressed by the author are not dangerous. Subversive, yes, but not dangerous, because the physical woman was not a social hurricane, but a little breeze to the public intellectuals. This reduction from hurricane to breeze, however, could be avoided if only the woman remain incorporeal, a generator of ideas and arguments without the physical vulnerability of the Victorian Woman.

In this way, Dillane is spot on about Marian Evans vs. George Eliot. As the distant authority, the wit, the philosopher, and sympathist, George Eliot could successfully impact the literary realm. Distanced from the physical body of Marian Evans upon whose appearance several cruelly commented, George Eliot could succeed. Reminders of her body, and the tying of George Eliot’s mind to that of Marian Evans’ body, would subject her to the damaging scrutiny of a society that saw her body as a violation of her gender and intellect, in addition to the social and ethical codes of the era.

The periodical disembodied women, a necessary move to empower the woman writer. To write on economics, art, politics, and social issues without the visible evidence of femininity (though retaining the woman’s experiences) was empowering. Marian Evans in particular, as a living violation of society’s expectations, needed a disembodiment, and the placement within the authorial name and physically removed figure of George Eliot.

Balancing Multiple Personalities

As a 21st century reader, it is fairly impossible gain the same impression of Victorian women authors as their contemporary readers held of them.  For all the research and analysis put into Victorian novels and journalism,  for all the insights that we gain into the relationship between the writers and readers in these genres,  we in the 21st century nevertheless know that Marian Evans’ and George Eliot’s works were penned by the same hand, or some of Harriet Martineau’s articles are written anonymously and that Elizabeth Gaskell likewise utilized a male persona for journalism.

We must certainly admire each of these women for persevering through whatever means available to enter the Victorian literary world.  While Harriet Martineau, “the first and greatest of women journalists”, began her career writing anonymously for a Unitarian periodical, her career grew and her name became associated with championing the issues we now know her for: abolitionism, women’s rights, and sociology.  Such a path would not be easy, and she was often criticized as being “too masculine.” In her autobiography she writes that “what I dread is being silenced, and the mortification and loss of the manner of it” and in her journalism and other writings we certainly see a woman resisting being silenced, making a clear connection between her own name and her own principles (Crawford).  In Crawford’s examination of the Dickens- Martineau debate, he observes that, while also exposing herself to being interpreted as vituperative, Martineau “demonstrated her willingness to engage fully in the rough-and-tumble of Victorian journalism” (Crawford).  While perhaps taken aback by some of Martineau’s bluntness, we must certainly also admire her insistence on forging a career as a female journalist and writer without shirking at the criticism she received because she was a woman.

For Elizabeth Gaskell, while she certainly faced challenges and mixed criticism of her novels because she is a woman, she also found space for her voice early on in the reformist periodicals of the 1840s.  As Alexis Easley explains, these periodicals “explicitly identified women writers as key players in the dissemination of diverse forms of knowledge that spanned both public and private spheres” (Easley).  Though while writing for these periodicals, “Gaskell was unwilling…to identify herself as a woman writer”, the reform press displays the value of women’s voices on major issues, perhaps emboldening her to (eventually) write her social problem novels under her own name.

Meanwhile, the George Eliot remains the least publicly known author, because there is nothing to know about George Eliot beside the works accredited to her name.  As Dillane observes, “public appreciate of George Eliot was in many ways determined by a distinct lack of biographical detail and visual audience of the writer” (Dillane).  Even today, while Martineau’s, Gaskell’s, and the Bronte sisters’ works are credited to their own names, Marian Evans’ novels remain published as the mythical Eliot’s works, and general readers do not realize (without research) that in reading an Eliot novel they are also reading the work of Marian Evans,  highly regarded in Victorian journalism.

Each of these women writers had to balance multiple personalities throughout their careers – sometimes for desire to escape public attention, sometimes in an effort to avoid the criticism typically thrown at Victorian female authors.  On one hand I must admire the skill and effort it took to uphold such personas – to write with a more “masculine voice”,  to not receive due credit for your works,  to then plunge bravely into daring to say the things you want to say under your own, female name.  On the other hand, I am saddened that their contemporary audiences were never able to know these authors as unified beings, to see their works as belong to their whole, unique selves.  While understanding these authors in their original context is important to understanding their works, we also hold the distinct pleasure of fulfilling these women’s ideal,  or reading their works as their  works, freed from their contemporary social stigmas.




Crawford, Iain.  “Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, and the Rise of the Victorian Woman of Letters.” 2014

Dillane, Fionnula. “After Marian Evans: The importance of being ‘George Eliot’. Before George Eliot: Marian Evans and the Periodical Press. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Easley, Alexis. “Elizabeth Gaskell, Urban Investigation and the ‘Abused Woman Writer'”. 2004