Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sensibility and sense: Camilla and Jane Austen

Fanny Burney by John Bogle, ca. 1783
'But only think of my being married before you! though you're seventeen years old—almost eighteen, I dare say—and I'm only just fifteen. I could not help thinking of it all the time I was dressing for a bride. You can't think how pretty my dress was.'
Spoken by the silly, thoughtless and pleasure-loving Lydia Bennet Wickham to her sister Kitty in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice? No: it is spoken by the silly, thoughtless and pleasure-loving Mrs. Lissin (née Dennel) to the heroine of Fanny Burney's 1796 novel Camilla. [1]

I've pointed out in the previous posts in this series—Jane Austen's favorite novelist: Fanny Burney, and Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?—that Burney's novels contain some striking pre-echoes of the characters and situations in several of Austen's books. As I've been reading Burney's Camilla over the past month, I've noticed in particular parallels to Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813), Emma (1815), and Persuasion (1818).
  • Camilla, like Pride and Prejudice, follows the fortunes of five young women entering the marriage market in a small village in rural England. Among them are the Tyrold sisters: Lavinia, who like Jane Bennet is the eldest and is noted for her sweet disposition; Camilla, who like Elizabeth Bennet is the second eldest, is lively and charming, and is the heroine of the novel; and Eugenia, who like Lydia Bennet is fifteen years old, and is abducted by an adventurer (though, unlike Lydia, Eugenia is abducted against her will). Lydia Bennet also bears traces of two other characters in Camilla: the Tyrold sisters' beautiful but vacuous cousin Indiana Lynmere, who elopes with the headstrong young military officer Macdersey; and (as the quote above suggests) Miss Dennel, who is "as childish in intellect as in experience; though self-persuaded she was a woman in both." [2]
  • Camilla is very beautiful, but she doesn't always exercise good judgment. And she often—inadvertently or by misguided design—finds herself in awkward or embarrassing situations which alarm, anger or offend Edgar Mandelbert, a man who has known her from childhood and has taken it on himself to offer her guidance and advice.

    Austen's Emma also frequently finds herself in similarly mortifying positions with respect to Mr. Knightley, a man who has known her from childhood and has taken it on himself to offer her guidance and advice. Mild spoiler alert for both novels, but can we say that a single man of marriageable age who offers admonitions to a young, beautiful woman is often not acting out of selfless disinterest?
  • In Camilla, Macdersey defends his changing romantic interests: "' long as I have the least hope, my passion's as violent as ever; but you would not be so unreasonable as to have a man love on, when it can answer no end?'" [3]

    In Austen's Persuasion, Anne Elliot might be responding to Macdersey when she says to Captain Harville: "'...I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as—if I may be allowed the expression—so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.'" [4]
But while Austen was influenced by Burney's novels, and drew on their characters and situations for her own books, she also recognized that the time of the novel of sensibility was past. In letters to her niece Anna Austen Lefroy, Austen extolled the fictional virtues of "Nature & Spirit." These consist in avoiding the "common Novel style," which features characters who "do not much abound in real Life," and what Austen calls "novel slang"—heightened and hackneyed language. [5]

That, in Austen's view, Burney's novels are sometimes guilty of transgressing these principles is clear from her affectionate satire "Plan of a Novel according to Hints from Various Quarters" (written ca. 1816), which gently mocks the plot of Burney's The Wanderer (1814):
Book to open with the description of Father and Daughter—who are to converse in long speeches, elegant Language—and a tone of high serious sentiment....

Early in her career, in the progress of her first removals, Heroine must meet with the Hero—all perfection of course—and only prevented from paying his addresses to her by some excess of refinement.—Wherever she goes, somebody falls in love with her, and she receives repeated offers of Marriage...—Often carried away by the anti-hero, but rescued either by her Father or by the Hero—often reduced to support herself and her Father by her Talents and work for her Bread; continually cheated and defrauded of her hire, worn down to a Skeleton, and now and then starved to death.—At last, hunted out of civilized Society, denied the poor Shelter of the humblest Cottage, they are compelled to retreat into Kamschatka where the poor Father, quite worn down, finding his end approaching, throws himself on the Ground, and after 4 or 5 hours of tender advice and parental Admonition to his miserable Child, expires in a fine burst of Literary Enthusiasm...—Heroine inconsolable for some time—but afterwards crawls back towards her former Country—having at least 20 narrow escapes from falling into the hands of the Anti-hero—and at last in the very nick of time, turning a corner to avoid him, runs into the arms of the Hero himself, who having just shaken off the scruples which fetter'd him before, was at the very moment setting off in pursuit of her.—The Tenderest and completest Eclaircissement takes place, and they are happily united.—Throughout the whole work, Heroine to be in the most elegant Society and living in high style. [6]
But despite the occasional novelistic excesses in Burney's works—in Camilla, the heroine falls into a delirium on seeing the dead body of her sister's tormentor, and is on the verge of expiring when she is rescued by the timely (not to say coincidental) appearance of the hero—Austen still valued them highly. Clearly, the elements Austen chose to borrow from Burney were less the conventions of the novel of sentiment than her emotionally detailed portraits of young women facing dilemmas arising from the constraints and prohibitions placed on them by their society. It was Burney's "most thorough knowledge of human nature" that inspired Austen: her sense, more than her sensibility. [7]

For other posts on Jane Austen and Fanny Burney, please see:
Jane Austen's favorite novelist: Fanny Burney
Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?

1. Fanny Burney, Camilla, Book IX, Chapter X.
2. Camilla, Book III, Chapter XIII
3. Camilla, Book III, Chapter XII
4. Jane Austen, Persuasion, Chapter XXIII (Vol. II, Chapter XI).
5. Quoted in Katie Gemmill (2011) "Jane Austen as Editor: Letters on Fiction and the Cancelled Chapters of Persuasion," Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 24(1): Article 5.
6. Austen, "Plan of a Novel according to Hints from Various Quarters."
7. Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 5.

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