Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Fairest Observers" and "Restless Watchers": Contested Sites of Epistemology in Frances Burney's Camilla

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Fairest Observers" and "Restless Watchers": Contested Sites of Epistemology in Frances Burney's Camilla

Article excerpt

Frances Burney committed several revolutionary acts in her lifetime. In 1778, she secretly published her first novel, Evelina, which was her "elopement, her rebellion, her declaration of independence" from her father (Doody 39). Fifteen years later, she married a French refugee and Constitutionalist, Alexandre d'Arblay, and published Brief Reflections Relative to the Emigrant French Clergy, a pamphlet mobilizing British women on behalf of French monks coming as refugees to England. (1) Burney's alliance with the French in 1793, the same year the Reign of Terror began, shocked the public. Her father refused to attend the wedding. During that same period she wrote a novel, The Wanderer, which makes direct references to the revolution and the wrongs of women, and was not published until 1814. But in 1796, during the tumultuous decade of the French Revolution, Burney also wrote and published Camilla.

Although critics who focus on Burney as a revolutionary writer tend to ignore Camilla, I argue that Camilla is no less bold in its social commentary than Burney's other writings. (2) To some degree, critics are justified in their neglect of Camilla as a revolutionary novel. Unlike The Wanderer, Camilla does not comment directly on the revolution itself, nor does it overtly address the political issues intensified by the conflict. Yet, while Claudia Johnson cautions against turning Burney into "Wollstonecraft's ideological sister," she still beckons us to read Camilla within the context of other polemical fiction written in the 1790s (2). Following Johnson's claim that the "social criticism in Camilla is decentered, conducted dramatically without narratorial commentary" (145), this article will look beyond overt references to discover implicit social critique in Camilla as it appears through repeated misinterpretations and wrong assumptions by those who observe in the novel. As a result, Burney destabilizes acts of interpretation, both for characters who attempt to read others within the novel and for readers attempting to read the novel itself.

Burney's skepticism about interpretive acts stands in opposition to the ready certainty of moral sentimentalism usually found in the eighteenth-century novel of sensibility. For example, Burney begins her long novel with a discourse about the near impossibility of the novelist's project to represent "the human heart": "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" (7). From the opening line, the very project taken on by the novelist to reveal "the human heart in its feelings and its changes" becomes a questionable one that promises to return only uncertain and tenuous answers. In this way, Burney opposes eighteenth-century theories of moral sentiment that, as Nancy Yousef explains, attempted to "shield the realm of intersubjective knowledge" from the skepticism of empirical investigation ("Feeling for Philosophy" 611). Whereas eighteenth-century discourse often expressed an "improbable confidence about our access to the thoughts, feelings, and qualities of other human beings" (613), Burney highlights the limits to knowledge and the uncertainty that necessarily attends interpretive attempts to read and know the other.

While Camilla provides traditional closure through the marriages of all the major characters, Burney offers no resolution to the epistemological issues raised about access to truth through transparent signs. The problems inherent with interpretation remain when, near the end of her novel, the narrator sounds this warning: "what is so hard to judge as the human heart? The fairest observers misconstrue all motives to action, where any received prepossession has found an hypothesis" (703). These passages from the novel are overtly about the heart and its emotions and motives, but they nonetheless use the diction of judgments, observations, and hypotheses that were central to empiricism. …

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