Sunday, March 20, 2016

of man; that amazing assemblage

Camilla starts by saying that it wants to explore “the Heart of man; that amazing assemblage of all possible contraries,” but the work is difficult -- “The historian of human life finds less of difficulty and of intricacy to develop, in its accidents and adventures, than the investigator of the human heart in its feelings and its changes” – this is her hwaet – and her investigatory method is a romance-story idea, the delayed marriage, distant forebear to Christina Stead’s 1952 book, The People With The Dogs – I’m mentioning Dogs because I think it carries out Burney’s ambition where Burney doesn’t –; and in that book (Dogs) there are many characters who demonstrate some series of possible contraries, for instance, “a woman in a scarlet dress” who, during a rehearsal in a theatre, responds to one of the protagonist’s lines with a catchphrase, “I’ll be a mistress but never a wife,” then “withdrew her soft plump bosom from the comradely hands of a rakish young actor and moved back and up in one single voluptuous motion, as if startled. She laughed, took a step back. Suddenly her face clouded, became proud and she went and stood against the back curtain, arms akimbo. No one took any notice.”

In Dogs it is enough for a character to come in once only and do that action and leave, detaching herself from plot; first making a public persona with the catchphrase, then reacting to a private stimulus by withdrawing her bosom, and you can offer some sort of structure there, some kind of equation, a desired addition of verbal attention justifying a desired subtraction of physical attention, but the implied engine of those actions remains locked within the woman and in her associations with the rest of the room. The larger engine is the book. But the book is a book of privacies and relational missteps, and by this is related to that little gesture. In Camilla, too, privacies and missteps, but there the different aspects have been separated, they are not introduced in that casual way, and the engine is externalised, explained, the machinery bared, the changed emotions are clear and they are preceded by clear triggers. Edgar, seeing Sir Sedley kissing Camilla’s hand in the garden, decides wrongly that she is flirting, so his mood is transformed. “Within these last twenty-four hours I have been the most wretched ... the happiest ... and again the most agonized of human beings!” The moods are large: they articulate themselves. They are often tied to statements of judgment and temperance,* which speak back to the book’s last line, “What, at last, so diversified as man? what so little to be judged by his fellow?” Indecisive behaviour is reserved for people who are at the apex of distress.

She now heard a hand upon the lock of the door. 'O that I could die! that I could die!' she cried, madly advancing to the window, and throwing up the sash, yet with quick instinctive repentance pulling it down, shuddering and exclaiming: 'Is there no death for me but murder—no murder but suicide?'

Stead’s method is the one that enters Cecilia briefly when the protagonist sits on a chair. Camilla tries a similar strategy when Edgar is about to leave the house and Camilla, who can't talk to him, stands in the parlour staring through the window at his horse. If the chair seems effective then why does this version of the same idea feel so ludicrous?

*eg, “The goodness of her heart, the evenness of her temper, and her natural turn to contemplation, had established her character alike for sanctity and for philosophy throughout the family.” “The inconsiderate facility with which she had wandered about with a person so little known to her, so underbred, and so forward, appeared now to herself inexcusable; and she determined, if but spared this dreadful punishment, to pass the whole of her future life in unremitting caution.” That's an interesting "inconsiderate."


  1. "growing up is hard to do"; maturing may be a gradual assimilation of commonly recognized verbal and corporeal gestures, which are ingrained in the old(accounting for disdain of the young)and mistakenly or incompetently manipulated(by the young in the process of learning). the latter producing agony and indecision and the former complacency and selfishness. it's remarkable how much human intercourse is based upon instinctual behaviors. burney seems to bring that out quite well...

  2. The relationship between old and young in Camilla is fairly specific: Burney believes that the young should take the advice of the old but only if the old are qualified to give it. Sir Hugh is old and sweet, but he's stupid, and Doctor Marchmont is old but he believes that all women are flirts and Edgar could have been married to Camilla several hundred pages earlier without him there. Her father is wise and good, however, and his advice is supposed to be unimpeachable, in the context of the book, anyway: he is temperate, modest, and firm. Temperance is her watchword.