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.