Sunday, April 10, 2016

to shop with her

“To explain is never more than to describe a way of making: it is merely to remake in thought. The why and the how, which are only ways of expressing the implications of this idea, inject themselves into every statement, demanding satisfaction at all costs.” Paul Valéry, Sea Shells, 1936, tr. Ralph Manheim. I’ve been thinking of Camilla’s Mrs Mittin, the character in Burney who (aside from Briggs) most successfully evades the “why” that the author gives her, which is this, “simple egotism.”

She would work, read, go on errands, or cook a dinner; be a parasite, a spy, an attendant, a drudge; keep a secret, or spread a report; incite a quarrel, or coax contending parties into peace; invent any expedient, and execute any scheme ... all with the pretext to oblige others, but all, in fact, for simple egotism; as prevalent in her mind as in that of the more highly ambitious, though meaner and less dangerous. [vol V., bk II, ch XII, ellipsis in text]

She advertises her willingness to oblige you, but (we discover) she can only oblige you in the way she has decided you want to be obliged – by telling you to go to shows she likes and finding bargain hats for you – by shopping and gossiping -- Burney using the word “gossiping” in association with her fairly often, and never “shopping,” though it had been in the English lexicon since she was a child, both born at roughly the same time according to the OED, which says somewhere between 1755 – 1765 for “shopping” while Burney appeared in 1752 -- and the description of shopping (not called by that name though “shop” as a verb is used, “to shop with her,” vol. V, ch. VI), is that it is an activity of shame, in which Mittin pulls Camilla down the street by the arm and the heroine is humiliated as she imagines people sneering at the spectacle of two women going from place to place and looking without buying. If you do not want to pay for the cheap cape that Mittin has brought back to your room then she will become “evasive” when you ask her to return it to the shopkeeper. Does she secretly hate you? You will never know. The author herself does not know. Vulgarity per se is enough of an essential negative in Burney’s eyes. You do not have to be kind or cruel on top of it, although her vulgar characters are also kind and cruel. ("Mrs Mittin [...] a character so forward, vulgar, and encroaching." Bk VIII, ch I.)

“To please was her incessant desire, and her rage for popularity included every rank and class of society. The more eminent, of course, were her first objects, but the same aim descended to the lowest.” Mittin is flexible but stiff: she will contort anywhere but only inside the boundaries that she recognises. The motivating factor that Burney identifies as “egotism” is invisible or harmless to the other characters* until they bump against it, when, as with Camilla, Mittin becomes a haunting presence who sabotages the heroines’s desire to guard her tiny money by insisting that Camilla congratulate her effort and buy the hat or cape. Or not insisting maybe, but refusing to recognise her No. To “remake” Mittin, ‘in thought,” you would need to inhabit, not an external history (as with Mrs Ireton in The Wanderer, whose backstory is a lesson against indulgence), but the unexplained internal core of Mittin-egotism itself, keeping in mind that the core flexibly remakes everything that comes to it, attempting to draw it in and reform it, until Camilla, in a false sense, is a young woman who would like that cape. News outlets reform the world like that for their audience: the protester gassed at the rally was violent.

Camilla falls into debt, runs away, and suffers death visions whose Gothic intensity owes something to the popularity of Ann Radcliff. But Mittin is blithe: the brother who keeps borrowing money from his sister is also blithe: they are both smiling. The brother breaks down eventually. He is tortured, tortured. Mittin is impenetrable. “She's the good-naturedest creature I ever knew,” says Miss Dennell to her father in bk. VI, ch. VI. In bk. X, ch XIV, “The notable Mrs. Mittin contrived soon to so usefully ingratiate herself in the favour of Mr. Dennel, that, in the full persuasion she would save him half his annual expences, he married her.”

*or actively useful. “Mrs. Berlinton, tired of remonstrances she could not controvert, and would not observe, was extremely relieved by finding a person [Mrs Mittin] who would sit with her aunt, comply with her humours, hear her lamentations, subscribe to her opinions, and beguile her of her rigid fretfulness by the amusement of gossiping anecdotes.”

Mudpuddle's comment below is prompting me to add this .pdf link to a good Mittin-essay by Li-ching Chen. "But I Do My Own Way": Mrs. Mittin's Autonomy and Quest for Respectability in Frances Burney’s Camilla.


  1. it's impressive, the amount of thought and concentration you put into these posts. i for one greatly enjoy pondering over them... Ms. Mittin is a very interesting character study: somewhat an exemplar of passive resistance, whether or not her strength comes from intention or from innativity. the quotes made me think of Ghandi and his struggle with the British... it's amazing the depths you've unearthed in these novels; i think you ought to publish a paper on your research and get some credit for your work...

  2. Praise is nice: thank you. That idea of associating Mittin with passive resistance is interesting because it seems to go against the language that Burney puts around her. But her weapons really are, all, activities that have been stereotyped as passive, aimless wastes of time: buying clothes, holding conversations, watching shows.

    Li-ching Chen wrote an essay that describes her better than I have: "Mrs. Mittin is autonomous as long as she makes the choices and her temporary subservience does not conflict with her perspective as a whole."