Camilla - Fanny Burney

Camilla (Oxford World's Classics) - Fanny Burney

Following the surprisingly light Evelina, I was kind of expecting something similar from Camilla: a faintly satirical epistolary novel with a cast of highly colourful characters in amusing situations with a dash of slightly ridiculous sentimentality. In fact, Camilla is much closer akin to a less accomplished Emma, if Emma had been written by a Bleak House-era Dickens.

 

(I should probably stop trying to describe books using other books. It never works the way I expect it to.)

 

Camilla follows a tight-knit group of eighteenth-century young things in their rather fraught negotiation of the marriage market and the world of financial obligation. The eponymous Camilla Tyrold is eighteen, beautiful, virtuous, sensitive and relatively penniless; Edgar Mandlebert, ward of her uncle, is of similar age, virtuous, sensitive and quite rich. It's fairly obvious where this is going, except that Edgar is criminally indecisive and vacillates between utter rapture at the thought that Camilla is going to marry him and black despair at the conviction that she's a flirt and a coquette and therefore not marriage material.

 

This is, essentially, the plot that stretches the novel out to a totally unnecessary 900 pages. It's like watching a Jennifer Aniston rom-com which is three hours long. Except that, in the case of Camilla, the last hundred pages of what has been a relatively sane half-satire on doubt, learning and marriage descends into a turbid Gothic extravaganza involving diabolical visions, extreme hypochondria and conveniently dead people. It's bizarre. And dull.

 

To some extent, it also feels like a novel that tries to be didactic without really knowing what its message is. There are a number of disastrously ill-matched marriages - so is it a novel about prudence? But Edgar's excessive prudence almost loses him Camilla. Is it, then, a novel about Doing The Right Thing? But Camilla's good intentions always make her look bad, and almost lose her Edgar. It's hard to tell what the point is, but there's a definite feeling that there should be a point.

 

I don't know. There were interesting, even enjoyable parts: the balls, the visits, the occasional amusing character making life difficult for everyone (Mrs Mittin, I'm looking at you), but it was a bit of a slog, and an unrewarding one at that.