The Bullfinch and the Brother: Marriage and Family in Frances Burney's "Camilla"

Elisabeth Rose Gruner, University of Richmond


Camilla is Frances Burney's most puzzling novel, and its eponymous protagonist her most puzzling heroine. While feminist and antifeminist, radical and reactionary alike can find something to like in Burney's first two heroines (and seem to have trouble simply finding her last), there is no critical consensus about Camilla. Like Mansfield Park, which similarly troubles critics (and to which it is frequently compared), Camilla concerns a courtship which is more familial than romantic, a heroine who is more sinned against than sinning, and a disconcerting tone of high moral seriousness which Burney's critics decry while her admirers (at least, her present-day admirers) can only hope is ironic. It is the seriousness of tone which led Macaulay to dub her later style "the worst style that has ever been known among men," apparently unaware of the gender implications of his comment. "In Camilla," Macaulay wrote, "every passage which she meant to be fine is detestable." Nonetheless this is the novel which, as Margaret Anne Doody notes, "tends to be the Burney novel that the author's younger contemporaries in fiction-writing--Edgeworth, Scott, and Austen--wish to quote" (Doody, pp. 386-87). The novel occupies this special place, I believe, because of its sophisticated awareness of the complexity of family life.