CAMILLA (1796)

FANNY BURNEY (1752–1840)

Although Fanny Burney writes solidly within the mainstream of fictional realism, her third novel Camilla is notable for incorporating elements of Gothic romanticism fashionable in the 1790s. Burney had read Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, and Camilla was partly designed to replicate its commercial success. During May 1794 she and her father the musicologist Dr Charles Burney discussed the phenomenal £500 royalty that Mrs Radcliffe was paid for her novel. Even the size of Burney’s novel was calculated to imitate that of her predecessor (which was 1,800 pages): ‘I wish to know whether, if I part with the Copy right, it would not be rather an advantage to the Publisher to have 5 volumes instead of 4, or else 4 large as Udolpho, as he may then raise to non-subscribers’ (letter to her brother Charles Burney, 5 July 1795); ‘I entreat, with whomsoever you deal, you will enquire whether it will be better or worse to curtail the Work. If we print ultimately for ourselves, according to our original plan, we always meant to make 4 Udolphoish volumes, & reprint the Edition that succeeds the subscription in 6 volumes duodmo common, for a raised price’ (letter to Charles Burney, 15 July 1795). Burney’s deliberate exploitation of pathos – she realized that ‘crying novels’ were now earning more than comic novels – also paid off, and Camilla sold out quickly, despite censures from some of the critical reviews.

Copyright © 2000, 2012 Rictor Norton

A Vision

When the first violence of this paroxysm of sorrow abated, Camilla again strove to pray, and found that nothing so much stilled her. Yet, her faculties confused, hurried, and in anguish, permitted little more than incoherent ejaculations. Again she sighed for her Father; again the spirit of his instructions recurred, and she enquired who was the clergyman of the parish, and if he would be humane enough to come and pray by one who had no claim upon his as a parishioner.
          Peggy said he was a very good gentleman, and never refused even the poorest person, that begged his attendance.
          ‘O go to him, then,’ cried she, ‘directly! Tell him a sick and helpless stranger implores that he will read to her the prayers for the dying! – Should I yet live – they will compose and make me better; – if not – they will give me courage for my quick exit.’
          Peggy went forth, and she lay her beating head upon the pillow, and endeavoured to quiet her nerves for the sacred ceremony she demanded.
          It was dark, and she was alone; the corpse she had just quitted seemed still bleeding in full view. She closed her eyes, but still saw it; she opened them, but it was always there. She felt nearly stiff with horrour, chilled, frozen, with speechless apprehension.
          A slumber, feverish nearly to delirium, at length surprised her harassed faculties; but not to afford them rest. Death, in a visible figure, ghastly, pallid, severe, appeared before her, and with its hand, sharp and forked, struck abruptly upon her breast. She screamed – but it was heavy as cold, and she could not remove it. She trembled; she shrunk from its touch; but it had iced her heart-strings. Every vein was congealed; every stiffened limb stretched to its full length, was hard as marble: and when again she made a feeble effort to rid her oppressed lungs of the dire weight that had fallen upon them, a voice hollow, deep, and distant, dreadfully pierced her ear, calling out: ‘Thou hast but thy own wish! Rejoice, thou murmurer, for thou diest!’ Clearer, shriller, another voice quick vibrated in the air: ‘Whither goest thou,’ it cried, ‘and whence comest thou?’
          A voice from within, over which she thought she had no controul, though it seemed issuing from her vitals, low, hoarse, and tremulous, answered, ‘Whither I go, let me rest! Whence I come from let me not look back! Those who gave me birth, I have deserted; my life, my vital powers I have rejected.’ Quick then another voice assailed her, so near, so loud, so terrible – she shrieked at his horrible sound. ‘Prematurely,’ it cried, ‘thou art come, uncalled, unbidden; they task unfulfilled, thy peace unearned. Follow, follow me! the Records of Eternity are opened. Come! write with thy own hand thy claims, thy merits to mercy!’ A repelling self-accusation instantaneously overwhelmed her. ‘O, no! no! no!’ she exclaimed, ‘let me not sign my own miserable insufficiency!’ In vain was her appeal. A force unseen, yet irresistible, impelled her forward. She saw the immense volumes of Eternity, and her own hand involutnarily grasped a pen of iron, and with a velocity uncontroulable wrote these words: ‘Without resignation, I have prayed for death: from impatience of displeasure, I have desired annihilation: to dry my own eyes, I have left – pitiless, selfish, unnatural! – a Father the most indulgent, a Mother almost idolizing, to weep out their’s!’ Her head would have sunk upon the guilty characters; but her eyelids refused to close, and kept them glaring before her. They became, then, illuminated with burning sulphur. She looked another way; but they partook of the same motion; she cast her eyes upwards, but she saw the characters still; she turned from side to side; but they were always her object. Loud again sounded the same direful voice: ‘These are thy deserts; write now thy claims: – and next, – and quick, – turn over the immortal leaves, and read thy doom.’ – ‘Oh, no!’ she cried, ‘Oh, no!’ – ‘O, let me yet return! O, Earth, with all thy sorrows, take, take me once again, that better I may learn to work my way to that last harbour, which rejecting the criminal repiner, opens its soft bosom to the firm though supplicating sufferer!’ In vain again she called; – pleaded, knelt, wept in vain. The time, she found, was past; she had slighted it while in her power; it would return to her no more; and a thousand voices at once, with awful vibration, answered aloud to every prayer, ‘Death was thy own desire!’ Again, unlicensed by her will, her hand seized the iron instrument. The book was open that demanded her claims. She wrote with difficulty – but saw that her pen made no mark! She looked upon the page, when she thought she had finished, – but the paper was blank! – Voices then, by hundreds, by thousands, by millions, from side to side, above, below, around, called out, echoed and re-echoed, ‘Turn over, turn over – and read thy eternal doom!’ In the same instant, the leaf, untouched, burst open – and – she awoke. But in a trepidation so violent, the bed shook under her, the cold sweat, in large drops, fell from her forehead, and her heart still seemed labouring under the adamantine pressure of the inflexibly cold grasp of death. So exalted was her imagination, so confused were all her thinking faculties, that she stared with wild doubt whether then, or whether now, what she experienced was a dream.
          In this suspensive state, fearing to call, to move, or almost to breathe, she remained, in perfect stillness, and in the dark, till little Peggy crept softly into the chamber.
          Certain then of her situation, ‘This has been,’ she cried,’only a vision – but my conscience has abetted it, and I cannot shake it off.’

[Fanny Burney, Camilla: or, A Picture of Youth, 5 vols (London: T. Payne; T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies, 1796), vol. 5, pp. 457–63]

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