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Saints in Art
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The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems
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Emily Dickinson
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Camilla - Madeleine L'Engle A reviewer at the Saturday Review compared Camilla to The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield and Camilla Dickinson, the protagonists in question, are a bit like Romeo and Juliet: he gets some terrific lines and flails around memorably, but she's the one who grows and matures and doesn't have an ego so huge it could eat New York City without having to open its mouth all the way.


I don't understand why Camilla isn't better known. As in, it doesn't seem to be known at all. It's a beautifully written story, first published in 1951, about a girl becoming a woman. That doesn't mean sex or love or even deciding on a career, though she does experience her first romantic interest and physical attraction in the course of the novel, and she is quite decisive about becoming an astronomer. Womanhood means the end of childhood, and for Camilla that means understanding that her parents were not put on this earth simply to be Mother and Father to a solemn-eyed girl.

As Camilla puts it, "It is a much more upsetting thing to realize that your parents are human beings than it is to realize that you are one yourself."

The romance aspect of this novel hasn't aged well. Frank Rowan, the boy Camilla falls for and the brother of her best friend Luisa, is a dud. He's a pompous, self-important, patronizing, sexist pig. He treats Camilla like absolute garbage. He asks her questions and sneers at her answers, probably because all he wants from her is for her to say, "Oh, Frank, that's wonderful!" Which she generally does. It's painful.

Here's a perfectly representative passage. Frank has just spent the last million pages talking about his ideas about life, the universe, and everything. Seriously, his speeches go on for page-long paragraphs. I think he grows up to be John Galt. Anyway, he finally pauses for breath long enough to offer to take Camilla somewhere they can get a bite to eat.

But I wasn't hungry. I shook my head. "No. But you go on and have something if you want to."

"Me, you think I could eat?" Frank turned on me and his voice was suddenly savage. "You think I could eat when the minute you're born you're condemned to die? When thousands of people are dying every minute before they've even had a chance to begin? Death isn't fair. It's – it's a denial of life! How can we be given life when we're given death at the same time? Death isn't fair," Frank cried again, his voice soaring and cracking with rage. "I resent death! I resent it with every bone in my body! And you think – you think I could eat!"

He looked at me as though he hated me. He jammed a coin into the slot and pushed me ahead of him onto the New York-bound ferry and stood with his arms crossed in bitter and passionate anger. He did not look at me; he did not talk. Once when the ferry slapped into a wave and I was thrown against him he pulled away from me as though I repelled him.

Now, those thoughts about the people who never get anything like a shot at a real life are remarkably similar to my own teenage (and post-teen) rantings on the subject. But it's hard to have sympathy or empathy for Frank Who Thinks And Feels So Much More Deeply Than We Do That He Can't Eat when this is his response after he brought up food in the first place. His exact question was, "Want to go somewhere and have a frankfurter or something?" God only knows what he would have done if Camilla had said yes. Taken her on the ferry and promptly thrown her overboard, probably.

So, yeah, the parts with Frank are rough going. And the ending isn't happy, I'm not going to lie to you.

But if you were (or are) a kid who spent a lot of time wondering about the world and your place in it, and who went on walks at night hoping "to talk to someone else who wanted to be out all night walking too," and who would rather have one good friend you could talk about everything to than a bunch of friends who only ever chatted about boys and clothes – you could do a lot worse than read Camilla. Yes, it's a period piece; but so is Catcher, and Camilla's thoughts and struggles are often a lot more engaging than Holden Caulfield running around saying how phony everybody else is.