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  • Commerce and Masochistic Desire in the 1790s: Frances Burney’s Camilla
  • Andrea Henderson (bio)

During the past ten years historians of the novel have made the function of desire in narrative visible in new ways. In particular, studies in the development of the eighteenth-century novel have revealed the extent to which socio-economic concerns—desire in relation to expenditure—served to shape the novel. Thus Michael McKeon shows that Robinson Crusoe effects the “naturalization of desire” while Gulliver’s Travels argues for the “containment of desire.” 1 Nancy Armstrong, in Desire and Domestic Fiction, speaks of a general “economy of pleasure in which the novel has been implicated since its inception,” one that involves the harnessing of desire and pleasure in the name of class-specific political ends. 2 More recently, in Models of Value James Thompson examines the role of the novel in structuring and regulating the linked economies of the spheres of finance and romance. 3 Indeed, the links between the management of desire and the management of money are explored in countless novels of the eighteenth century. In Frances Burney’s first and best-known novel, Evelina (1778), precisely such issues are at stake: the heroine struggles to negotiate between her feelings of desire, both material and sexual, in consumerist London, and her sense that desire is prohibited. But the inquiry into the issue of desire and its prohibition—who may desire, and what and when they may desire—does little to illuminate the various forms of desire itself. Fruitful as the exploration of desire in relation to prohibition can be, a novel like Burney’s 1796 Camilla reveals its limitations. For in Camilla, as in many novels of the end of the century, desire itself, which is generally assumed to be a natural and positive sign of agency, is consistently characterized [End Page 69] by anxiety and pain; it is steeped in suffering. 4 Burney’s best recent critics have noted that this is one of the most striking features of the book. Thus Julia Epstein remarks that “Camilla tells the story of love postponed, thwarted, frustrated, misled, and deliberately unspoken” 5 ; Margaret Doody calls it an “anti-love-story” in which “memory and love are connected with ideas of violent pain” 6 ; and Claudia Johnson goes so far as to speak of its “masochistic edge.” 7 Nevertheless, this suffering tends always to be accounted for in terms of the desire and prohibition opposition, and masochism is taken to be the sign of thwarted desire, rather than a mode of desire in its own right.

I will show that the masochism of Camilla, like that of other works of the 1790s, is not simply a sign of disappointed desire, but is finally represented as the best, most attractive way of desiring. For the paramount question for the characters of Camilla, both female and male, is not whether they may desire, but how they should desire. I will argue, moreover, that they learn how to desire in the contemporary marketplace, where the two most important means of acquisition are shopping and gambling. These two activities serve as the primary models for the workings of desire generally, including erotic desire: characters desire not only things but each other either in the manner of casual shoppers or in the manner of speculators. In the world of Camilla, these two paradigms serve both to generate desire and to limit its possibilities; the book’s characteristic affective quandaries reflect the peculiar pleasures and binds these limitations produce. Burney thus shows us that new habits of desire were learned in the turn-of-the-century marketplace, where a more impersonal relation between merchant and buyer made careful shopping seem an increasingly vulgar activity, while the traditional aristocratic love of risk-taking combined with a new, radical faith in speculation, and taught the value of suspenseful and even painful desire.


The affective tone of Camilla, its emotional inflection, is quite striking and distinctive; the reader of the novel quickly becomes aware that she or he is immersed in a very different atmosphere from that of Burney’s earlier novels. Reading the book for the first time, one is likely to feel...

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pp. 69-86
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