Fanny Burney, Jane Austen and Rational Creatures Speaking Truth From the Heart


Right now I am nearly done reading Camilla by Fanny Burney, and what a crazy mess that is.  Better than Evelina, in the sense of being more richly crowded with people and incident, a more fully realized work. It looks forward to the overstuffed  Victorian novels of Dickens and Eliot, in its sentimentality and its extremes. But it also shows the stamp of earlier 18th-century ones, in its sweeping authorial asides and moral lessons. Still, the sense that strikes me most strongly reading this book is what a raw deal women got in this world, and how the author hardly seems to remark on this, as if it is something too obvious to require comment.

And this makes me think, again, of Jane Austen — as so many things do.

The plot of Camilla, if I dare to describe such a thing, centers on the title character, a girl of 17 when the main action of the plot begins. She is one of three daughters in what is presented as a nearly perfect family: a kind, intelligent clergyman father, a mother who is even more intelligent and respected (though who is for most of the action of the story on urgent business on the Continent, thus depriving Camilla of her counsel when it is most needed). Camilla is all unaffected goodness and generosity, though with an impulsiveness that leads her into trouble. Since childhood she has loved, and been adored by, the rich and handsome boy next door (next estate, actually)  an equally kind but more rigidly righteous person with the improbable name of Edgar Mandlebert (Burney has a weakness for crazy names.) Through a series of absurd misunderstandings that could have been cleared up in a single honest conversation, which they somehow seem never able to have, they become ever more estranged, as Camilla embarks on a round of pleasure outings in Tunbridge Wells, Southhampton and London that bring her decreasing pleasure, and an officious hanger-on with the unlikely name of Mrs. Mittin leads her unwittingly deep into debt.

The novel is fascinating  in how it puts money front and center. Camilla’s debt problems stem not from her own extravagance (she enjoys giving money to the poor much more than spending it on herself) than from the mischief of her brother, Lionel, the scapegrace black sheep, who without being actually evil, brings enormous misery to his family by a whole range of 18th-century bad-boy behavior: he gambles, hunts obsessively, has an affair with a married woman, refuses to settle on a career,  accumulates large debts and playfully extorts money from the uncle he expects to be the heir of,  expressing no remorse for any of this until it is too late. It is his borrowing all the money Camilla had been given for her outing to Tunbridge Wells that first sets her on the path to debt and disgrace, as seemingly small missteps lead to huge problems.

We learn along the way about how the mere rumor of future wealth assures shopkeepers will grant one credit on easy terms (Mrs. Mittin, informed by a friend, who was lied to by Lionel, spreads the false report that Camilla is to inherit the fortune of her uncle Sir Hugh, a baronet). When the rumor turns out to be untrue, the vultures start circling and we learn  about money-lenders (usury is illegal but popular) and debtors’ prison, where Camilla’s father briefly lands before he is bailed out by his friends.

In addition, much of the plot is driven by Sir Hugh’s decision to settle his fortune on the brilliant, classically educated, generous and hopelessly innocent Eugenia, Camilla’s youngest sister, who is lame and smallpox-scarred through a set of childhood mishaps that Sir Hugh blames on himself. Meanwhile, Lynnmere, a cousin of Camilla’s and even more worthless than Lionel, assumes he is the heir and racks up debt accordingly.  And poor saintly Eugenia is constantly at the risk of being kidnapped and forced into marriage for her money.

Men behave much worse, but women’s behavior is held to a much higher standard and thus they are often found guilty of impropriety for seemingly minor offenses. This is the lesson Camilla learns the hard way.

Women, in general, are presented as being at the mercy of capricious, money-hungry and sometimes violent men, subject to insult in public places when not properly chaperoned (a theme explored in much more detail in Evelina). Assumed to be coquettes until proven otherwise. Worse, they are allowed to express nothing. Even if they like a man, they are not supposed to reveal this preference openly; they have to wait demurely and hope the man they like picks them. If chosen by a man they do not like, their rejection runs the risk of being seen as maidenly reserve or just another species of coquettery. It is this set of assumptions Jane Austen plays off brilliantly in Pride and Prejudice in the proposal scene with Mr. Collins, when that clergyman refuses to take no for an answer:

“As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”

This remark provokes Elizabeth to make a reply that is astonishing, not by her own standards, but by those of female behavior in novels of the era:

“I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honor you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer ? Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart.”

This series of frank, concise declarations adds up to a speech Camilla could never have made, nor Clarissa, nor Evelina, nor Sophie in Tom Jones. The idea that a  young woman could be “a rational creature speaking truth from her heart,” who could, without even the thought of consulting her parents, reject an offer of marriage so quickly and decisively, is deeply, yet quietly radical by the standards of the day.

We cheer it now, but we do not fully understand this; the idea that Elizabeth Bennet should have a mind of her own and use it does not amaze us. As her detractors have often observed, Jane Austen never created anything close to a proto-feminist hero; she shows suspicion of women who spend too much reading books or mastering an instrument, and no one ever makes a speech about the rights of women. But her radicalism is right under our noses, in its quiet insistence of women having feelings and thoughts that are as valid and important as those of men, and the words in which to clothe them.


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