Camilla Tyrold is the eldest of three daughters of a country parson. As a child, she lives with her rich uncle, Sir Hugh Tyrold, & is considered by everyone, including Sir Hugh, to be his heiress. After a series of events which leave Camilla’s sister, Eugenia, lame & scarred from smallpox, Sir Hugh changes his mind & takes Eugenia into his home & makes her his heir. Sir Hugh is a silly man. Ignorant, vapid yet much loved by his family & servants, it is his fault that Eugenia becomes ill after he ignores her mother’s instructions. Camilla returns to her modest family home feeling no resentment at all. Camilla’s brother, Lionel, is a silly, thoughtless young man who thinks nothing of proprieties & puts his sisters into some very embarrassing situations. He plagues both his uncles (Sir Hugh & his mother’s brother in Spain) for money as he’s always in debt & uses emotional blackmail on Camilla which leads to serious consequences for her future happiness.
Sir Hugh also has another niece & nephew who have expectations from his generosity even though he has tried to make it clear that Eugenia will inherit everything. Clermont Lynmere is sent off on the Grand Tour to become learned & cultured as Sir Hugh intends him to marry Eugenia & in that way, share in her inheritance. His sister, Indiana, is a beautiful but shallow girl who has been flattered & encouraged by her governess, Miss Margland, into believing she has only to enter a room to make slaves of every man in it. Eugenia has been well-educated by the ill-tempered, absent-minded Dr Orkborne as Sir Hugh believes that her fine mind will make up for her lack of personal attractions when Clermont comes home to marry her.
Camilla has become attached to Edgar Mandlebert, a young landowner who has been under her father’s guardianship. Edgar returns her feelings but is worried by the propriety Camilla’s enthusiastic, open manner. He is advised by Dr Marchmont, a clergyman who serves as Edgar’s moral as well as spiritual guide. Unfortunately he takes rather a jaundiced view of the female sex after some sad experiences in his youth so Edgar veers from determining to throw himself at Camilla’s feet & offer her his hand & disapproving of her behaviour.
Camilla becomes acquainted with Mrs Arlbury, a witty, worldly woman who takes a fancy to her & asks her to visit. Camilla then meets Sir Sedley Clarendel, a fop who is taken with her beauty but deterred by her lack of money & Major Cerwood who pursues her without mercy. There are conflicting rumours in the neighbourhood as to which of the Tyrold sisters is actually Sir Hugh’s heiress. This leads to Eugenia being pursued by the plausible but smooth Mr Bellamy & Camilla finding herself an object of attention to several men as well as the garrulous & vulgar Mrs Mittin who manages to get her into considerable debt on visits to fashionable resorts like Tunbridge Wells & Southampton. Camilla also meets Mrs Berlinton, a beautiful young woman who is unhappily married to an older man & likes to cultivate sentimental but potentially dangerous friendships with handsome young men.
Camilla & Edgar are at cross-purposes throughout the entire book. Edgar is a serious, priggish young man who sets himself up as Camilla’s moral guide, a role she is quite happy to allow him to play. However, Camilla’s love of excitement & her tendency to be dazzled by women such as Mrs Arlbury & Mrs Berlinton lead to situations where her actions are misconstrued & her motives questioned. Unfortunately Edgar is too ready to believe that Camilla is engaged to Sir Sedley or trifling with Major Cerbery & so he spends a lot of time stalking off to consult with Dr Marchmont when he should just sit down with Camilla & ask her what’s going on. Camilla is helpless as only a young, unmarried woman of the time can be. She is at the mercy of her hostesses & she finds herself entangled in debt & obligations which she cannot escape. Her principles are sound but she can be frivolous & stubborn where her pleasures or her friendships are concerned.
Camilla is a very long book, over 900pp. The first four volumes follow Camilla on her journeys from her home at Etherington to Sir Hugh’s estate at Cleves, her visits to her friends & the growing web of entanglements & misunderstandings that separate her from Edgar. In the final volume, however, the comedy of manners is replaced by a Gothic story of abduction, forced marriage, desperate illness & mysterious death. It’s quite a change in tone but it’s a lot of fun. Maybe Fanny Burney realised that she had to create some drastic plot twists to force the story to a conclusion. I enjoyed Camilla very much although I found I had to put it down occasionally because I was so frustrated by Camilla’s ability to dig herself further & further into a pit of trouble.
There are some wonderful characters in the book. Miss Margland is a spiteful, embittered woman who thinks herself superior to her post as governess & is determined to find Indiana a rich husband so she can to live out her days with her grateful pupil. Clermont Lynmere is a boor who returns from the Grand Tour with no manners & without absorbing any culture at all. He is rude to Sir Hugh & dismissive of Eugenia, shrinking in horror from the poor girl. He is also greedy, reaching in front of people to get at any food in sight. Sir Hugh’s old Yorkshire friend Mr Westwyn & his son, Harry, are men with hearts of gold. Westwyn had conducted his son & Clermont on the Grand Tour & has a pretty shrewd opinion of the worth of both young men. Mr & Mrs Tyrold are paragons & it’s easy to see how Camilla shrinks from confessing her faults to two such moral, if loving, parents. Still, for all its delights, the book is much too long. I can only agree with Edgar when he declares,
‘O Camilla,’ he cried, ‘if, indeed, I might hope from you any partiality, why act any part at all? – how plain, how easy, how direct your road to my heart, if but straightly pursued!’