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Review: "Camilla" by Fanny Burney

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First published in 1796, Burney's third novel revolves around the economic and matrimonial concerns of Camilla Tyrold and her close family. The story takes us through many hardships in the Tyrold family, most caused by misunderstandings, on the path to true love and solvency.

After a slow start, once all the characters are introduced and start to interact, Burney weaves a captivating story. Unlike her previous novels, Evelina and Cecilia, Camilla's titular character is far from perfect in both beauty and intelligence. She does not lay claim to much common sense either. Camilla is a nervous wreck throughout most of the novel, but her failings are so human that we can't help being enchanted by her. Her deformed sister, Eugenia, is a dear little thing. Her brother Lionel makes us laugh and cringe at his antics. Her sometime suitor, Edgar Mandlebert--perhaps one of the more infuriating characters of the novel--redeems himself by doing some good brooding in dark corners. And there are some well-rounded villains to keep us on our toes including the overbearing governess, Miss Margland, and the equally overbearing Mrs. Mittin who may mean well but leaves disaster in her wake.

While I'm not as fond of Camilla as Burney's other novels (Evelina was my particular favorite), there is some merit to this one. The resemblance to Jane Austen's writing style and plot construction is more apparent in Camilla than Burney's other novels. Sir Sedley Clarendel, who seems a most lethargic and unpromising young chap at the start, turns out a wonderfully complex character. I see hints of him in Henry Crawford from Austen's Mansfield Park.  Edgar Mandlebert reminds me of Mr Knightly from Emma in his many exhortations on propriety to Camilla, though Camilla deserves such exhortations much less than Emma did.

If you have enjoyed Evelina and Cecilia and are hungering for more Burney, Camilla will satisfy you. You also will be satisfied if you are a Jane Austen fan and are curious about her influences. For instance, Camilla was mentioned in Austen's Northanger Abbey by its heroine in the following effusion:

It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.

Otherwise, I would recommend trying Burney's other novels first and then perhaps rereading some Jane Austen.

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