Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Camberwell Beauty” is a subtle and complex study of human nature through the eccentric people of the London antique trade. They are a tragicomic group, a subculture with strange mores and dubious lusts, like August’s passion for ivory figures and Pliny’s for Caughley ware. This is, as the narrator says, no atmosphere in which to rear a young girl, particularly in view of the abnormal sexual neuroses that flourish among these people. August’s advances on young Isabel border on the incestuous, and Pliny’s relationship with his mistress and his solemn promise to his mother to give up sex are indicative of the slightly twisted mentality that reigns in the group as a whole.

In comparison with the others, the narrator appears normal. At one point, he catches Isabel looking at him with unusual intensity—not because he is unusual but precisely because he is not. What is not certain, however, is whether his love for Isabel is any less possessive than Pliny’s bizarre connoisseurship, which reduces Isabel to a delicate object of art, for the narrator himself compares his obsession with her to the desire of a collector to own some rare and beautiful thing. Nevertheless, whatever the narrator’s motives may be, the story takes readers beyond the strange world of antique dealing and collecting to a wider social arena, suggesting that these people and their passions are metaphors for a materialistic society in which sex is but one more commodity and people merely objects to be manipulated.