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|GR: John Thorpe as literary critic. Long!
Written by DeeMac
(4/6/2003 7:40 a.m.)
Of all John Thorpe's many failings, none is more glaring than his inability to appreciate the fiction of the day. He dismisses Fanny Burney's Camilla with the lines: "...it is the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man's playing at see-saw and learning Latin; upon my soul there is not." The assessment would have greatly amused Burney readers of the day.
No-one seems to have commented on JT as a literary critic this time around. (If I've missed the posts, many apologies, but I can't seem to find any.) I was just searching through the archives and found a couple of posts of mine from a few years ago on the subject. They focused on the actual plot of Burney's novel, as opposed to John Thorpe's summary of it, as well as looking at what JA's real opinion of Camilla was likely to have been. Here are the posts. The first deals with the plot as summarised by John Thorpe.
The events John Thorpe mentions happen in the third and fourth chapter of the first volume of this FIVE-VOLUME novel, so he clearly didn't give it much of a chance.
The novel tells the story of Camilla Tyrold, and her two sisters Eugenia and Lavinia - the beautiful daughters of a worthy country parson. Their lives are all altered when the parson's older bachelor brother, a well-meaning but buffoonish baronet, decides to move into the area and befriend his little nieces and nephew, who are all children at the novel's start.
Disaster soon ensues. Against their mother's wishes, Sir Hugh takes them all to a country fair. At the fair Little Eugenia, the only one in the family who has not been innoculated, comes into contact with a child recovering from Small Pox. The hysterical uncle rushes home with all the children, and burns their contaminated clothes. Then, hoping for the best, he decides to cheer them up while they are waiting for their mother to return, by playing 'ride upon a plank' with them.
He goes on one end with little Eugenia, and suggests that the rest of the children sit on the other. As soon as Sir Hugh's end rises in the air, he gets dizzy, drops the child and falls himself while making a lunge for her. As Fanny Burney says, this diversion was short, but its consequences were long.
In the days that follow, the delerious child begins to exhibit the signs of smallpox. Although she doesn't die, the fall and the disease play dreadful havoc with her life, eventually leaving Eugenia scarred beyond recognition, with her limbs twisted and her body deformed.
In the aftermath of this accident their uncle feels so guilty that he makes over his fortune to Eugenia. He blames all of his failings on his poor education as a child, and he decides to hire a tutor and learn Latin. Much of the comedy of the first volume centres around his laughable attempts to better himself.
But all this happens really as a prelude to the main novel itself. Like most of Burney's novels, the central plot concerns a young girl's entrance into the world, and the various tests she must undergo and the lessons which she must learn before she can eventually be united with the love of her life.
Which is not unlike the basic plot of Northanger Abbey, come to think of it. But Austen does it soooo much better.
(This second post was in answer to a request to know JA's real opinion of the novel and a query about whether or not she 'borrowed' her plots from Burney.)
It took me a bit of searching through my overflowing bookcases, but I found out a reasonable amount about JA and 'Camilla' - as follows:
Austen's father subscribed for Camilla in his daughter's name, so presumably he knew that she admired Burney. As a subscriber, she would have received the five volumes in boards uncut. Her first-edition copy of the set was presented to the Bodleian in 1930, by which time the book had been half-bound in leather, which partially mutilated an inscription which is presumed to have been Austen's own comment on one of the more irritating characters in the novel. (A Dr Marchmont whose mistaken advice that Camilla be repeatedly 'tested' by the hero results in them being separated for most of the novel, whereupon Marchmont finally admits that his interference was unforgiveable.)
Since this work went to the Press
Unfortunately the re-binding covered up her final line/s - but it is presumed that the missing conclusion involved a gleeful description of the painful death of Dr Marchmont!
Camilla didn't come out until July 1796, but Jane must have read it lickety split, because she is already mentioning incidents in the book in letters to Cassandra in September of that year while she is staying at her brother's home.
1st Sept 1796...Tomorrow I shall be just like Camilla in Mr Dubster's summer-house, for my Lionel will have taken away the ladder by which I came here, or at least by which I intended to get away, and here I must stay till his return. My situation, however, is somewhat preferable to hers, for I am very happy here, though I should be glad to get home by the end of the month.
The reference is to an incident in which Camilla is pursued into a summer house by an irritating would-be suitor (yet another silly baronet. Like Austen, Burney is not very kind men of that particular rank. Think Sir Walter)
Camilla's brother Lionel, who wants her to marry Sir Sedley, sends him to her hiding place, where he accosts her in the following overblown style: "Beautiful, resistless Camilla! How vain it is to struggle against your witchery. Assure me but of your clemency, and I will adore the chains that shackle me!"
Many Burney characters adopt this rather melodramatic style of speech, by the way.
The next reference to the novel I could find comes a few days later, also in a letter to Cassandra. She finishes with the following amusing comment:
5th September, 1796: Give my Love to Mary Harrison, & tell her I wish whenever she is attached to a young Man, some 'respectable' Dr Marchmoht may keep them apart for five Volumes.
The final reference I could find is also in September 1796, and again in a letter to Cassandra:
Miss Fletcher and I were very thick, but I am the thinnest of the two - she wore her purple Muslin, which is pretty enough, tho' it does not become her complexion. There are two Traits in her Character which are pleasing; namely, she admires Camilla and & drinks no cream in her Tea.
Now none of these references quite convinces me that Austen admired the book in any serious way, although I'm sure that she and Cassandra enjoyed it well enough as a Richardonian romp with a happy ending. There's no denying that it was one of the three novels singled out for praise in the defence of the novel section of NA, however.
I love reading Burney too, in small doses, but she is much more an eighteenth century novelist than a nineteenth century one. More Richardon than Austen. It seems to me that many of the plots Austen pokes fun at in the juvenilia could be gentle barbs aimed as Burney's excesses. If she was influenced by Burney, it would only have been in an oblique way; Burney's novels might well have givn her useful lessons in what to avoid in her own writing. IMHO, that is.
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