“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?

Bellamy’s Gun: Weaponized Emotions in Burney’s Camilla

Alphonso Bellamy, born Nicholas Gwigg, is what my roommate’s high school students would call “extra.” From the false name to the directness of his evil plots against Eugenia to the overblown speeches he makes toward her, almost every aspect of his character is extremely extra. All of these excesses make him more caricature than character, the ‘fortune-seeker’ who serves as a foil to more realized characters who pursue a wealthy marriage more subtly.

If Bellamy is meant to show us something about the other characters by his excesses, it’s important to consider his most extreme – and ultimately fatal – excess. Bellamy’s threats of suicide exceed Sir Sedley’s melodramatic flailings or Sir Hugh and Camilla’s fits. So, what are these threats of suicide revealing about everyone else’s behaviors?

Bellamy’s threats seem, at first glance, much like Sedley’s repeated insistence that Camilla is hurting him by not returning his favors. In one of his letters, Sedley asks, “Tomorrow, then, . . . you will not, I trust, kill me again tomorrow?” (553). ‘Killing’ is clearly a metaphor; she can’t kill him ‘again’ if she hasn’t already killed him once, and he can’t be writing if he is actually dead. He follows with an exhortation that she “tell me, then, to what century of that period your ingenious cruelty condemns me to this expiring state, ere a vivifying smile recalls me back to life?” (553). This is a little bit extra, but it’s also clearly metaphorical and, given the character, possibly tongue-in-cheek.  The two men are similar (perhaps not to Sedley’s credit) but are not the same.

Camilla interprets the letter as an indication that “Sir Sedley thought her only coquettishly trifling,” and assumes he is responding to her according to socially-accepted conventions (553). She’s embarrassed, but not afraid. Bellamy’s serious threats, in contrast to Sedley’s facetious ones, make Eugenia “overcome with horror” and convince her to agree to marry him on the spot (806). This could be read as an indication that Camilla ‘reads’ people better than Eugenia does, because the former realizes that there’s no literal threat to Sedley’s life while Eugenia does not realize that Bellamy is not likely to actually kill himself.

However, this similarity could also be read as an indication of Bellamy’s bad intentions, in contrast to Sedley’s mostly good ones. Bellamy does not technically commit suicide, but he does prove his seriousness by using a real, loaded gun the second time he threatens Eugenia. He could frighten her with an empty gun, but he goes beyond empty rhetoric to a loaded gun. Where Sedley hopes to persuade Camilla to go along with him, Bellamy steps over the bounds of persuasion and into coersion.

If the point of the suicide threats is to show the way emotions can be used not only as pathos appeals, but also as methods of direct control, we might ask who else’s emotions are weaponized in the text. Many characters try to elicit pity in the others, but a few wield more extensive emotional power. Sir Hugh’s emotions define life at Cleves, and while his family members don’t seem to mind, they are also frequently afraid to upset him or argue with him because he may go into a fit and die. Sir Hugh does not seem to be making himself ill on purpose, or intentionally wielding the threat of getting ill in order to get he wants, but his constant illnesses do give him more power over his family members.  In particular, the girls are often compelled to feel or feign happiness in order to appease him.

Similarly, Camilla’s letters home from the inn capitalize rhetorically on her upcoming death, and ultimately her deathbed letter to Edgar convinces him of her love. Like her uncle, Camilla is suffering from actual physical illness and genuinely believes herself to be dying. Certainly, the instruction that her letter to Edgar be delivered only after her death precludes it from being read as an intentional coercion tactic. That does not mean her emotions aren’t being weaponized – though it might mean that, like Bellamy, these weaponized emotions are as much, or more, of a threat to her than they are to everyone else, as her body threatens to give out. In a novel driven by attempts to control one’s own emotions while reading others’, weaponized emotions are both powerful and dangerous, even toward the person wielding those emotions.

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.

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.

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”)

Distance and Sympathy in “Camilla”

Frances Burney’s Camilla is, almost from beginning to end, a long (very long) series of misunderstandings. While personal defects and even deviousness do play a part in the novel, the vast majority of the plentiful conflict arises from well-meant but poorly executed interpretation. Camilla misreads Edgar’s intentions, Edgar misreads Camilla’s every action, Eugenia misreads Bellamy’s professions, and Dr. Marchmont misreads the entire female sex. This basic formula of increasingly disastrous misunderstanding is a common one, especially in comic drama such as Shakespeare’s where it always culminates in a rapid resolution of the near-catastrophe when the disguises are removed and everyone resumes their original genders.

However, while Camilla does at long last resolve in a similar way, the progression toward that point is not experienced in nearly so lighthearted a manner as is typical of a comedy. Unlike the “comic equivalent of fear” which R.S. Crane describes as the result of similar misunderstandings in Tom Jones, the reader of Camilla is likely to feel genuine concern, perhaps disappointment, and almost certainly frustration. I believe that an important reason for this less comical readerly experience can be found by considering the various distances at work in the novel.

In Wayne Booth’s seminal Rhetoric of Fiction, he describes a number of kinds of distance in the novel which shape the reader’s experience. These distances include the distance between the reader and the narrator, between the implied author and the narrator, and between the narrator and the characters. Booth explains how different combinations of these kinds of distances mold almost every aspect of a novel, and one critical aspect of the novel experience determined by these distances is sympathy (particularly sympathy between the reader and the characters). Booth notes that, in Tom Jones, it is the closeness of the narrator and the reader which makes possible the “comic analogue of fear” described by Crane, and he considers how Austen must maintain a closeness between Emma and her readers without letting them ever get too close, in order to maintain Emma’s appeal.

Booth’s observations provide insight into why we experience the complex web of errors in Camilla so differently than similar plots of error in other works. Unlike Tom Jones, the author and the narrator of Camilla both remain fairly undeveloped and unobtrusive. Burney implicitly acknowledges her creative role in the first paragraph of the book, but beyond that point she assumes the voice of her narrator who, while not dispassionate, could hardly be identified as a “character.” Thus, although the reader is close to the narrator insofar as they trust her and hold knowledge in common with her, they are not close to her in a way which shapes their expectations for the characters. The frequent intrusions of Fielding’s narrator in Tom Jones assure the reader that Tom will be just fine, but Burney’s narrator becomes little more than an accurate lens through which to view the characters and their world.

And through that lens we view a large array of characters and the activities of their respective hearts and minds. Indeed, one of the more striking aspects of Burney’s novel is the number of characters who are granted at least some interior exposition in the course of the story. Burney allows us more access to Camilla’s hopes and fears than to the others’, but, within the novel’s commodious narrative, there is still plenty of time spent in Edgar’s suspicious heart, Eugenia’s naively intelligent mind, and the feelings of many other secondary characters as well. Burney uses almost every instance of interior exposition to create sympathy for the character being exposited. In fact, almost the only character of import who is granted no interior exposition is Bellamy, such that all our knowledge of internal motivations is consonant with the overall impression of disastrously entangled good intentions.

This widespread interiority brings the reader fairly close to many characters but not very close to any one. We, along with the narrator, know a little bit about what everyone is thinking, and thus we are always kept somewhat distant from what any one character is thinking since we possess knowledge which allows us to see their frustrating folly or reasonable error. This distance might render the reader’s sympathy for the characters somewhat fragile so Burney’s challenge is to paint every character in as positive a light as possible despite the fact that they all succeed at damaging one another quite prodigiously. For example, if Camilla were to cause trouble with vanity like Emma’s, we would dislike her for it, since Burney does not bring us as close to Camilla as Austen brings us to Emma.

It is this almost overwhelming number of fairly sympathetic characters in Camilla which causes us to experience the plot of errors in a not entirely lighthearted way. The frustration we feel is not so much Camilla’s or Edgar’s, but rather it is our own, the frustration not of one character’s perspective of the overall mess but of our own perspective which puts us in contact with such a vast cacophony of voices, all of which we wish well, that, without direct assurances to the contrary by the narrator, we begin almost to fear that the disaster has gone too far and not even our unobtrusive author can entirely set things to rights.