Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1444
Cecilia Beverley, just short of her majority, is left ten thousand pounds by her father and an annual income of three thousand pounds by her uncle, the latter inheritance being restricted by the condition that her husband take her name. Until her coming of age, she is expected to live with one of her guardians, the fashionable spendthrift Mr. Harrel, husband of a girlhood friend. One who warns her against the evils of London is Mr. Monckton, her clever and unscrupulous counselor. His secret intention is to marry Cecilia; at present, however, he is prevented by the existence of an old and ill-tempered wife, whom he married for money.
The constant round of parties in London and the dissipation of the Harrels are repugnant to Cecilia. Kind but unimpressive Mr. Arnott, Mrs. Harrel’s brother, falls hopelessly in love with the girl, but Harrel obviously intends her for his friend, insolent Sir Robert Floyer, whom Cecilia detests. After vainly begging Harrel to pay a bill, which Arnott finally pays, Cecilia becomes so disgusted with the Harrels’ way of life that she decides to leave their household. However, she finds the abode of her miserly guardian, Mr. Briggs, so comfortless and is so repulsed by the pride and condescension of her third guardian, Mr. Delvile, that she decides to remain with the Harrels.
At a masquerade party, she is pursued by a man disguised as the devil. He is Monckton in disguise, attempting to keep others away from her. She is rescued first by a Don Quixote and later by a domino whose conversation pleases her greatly. At first, she believes the domino is Mr. Belfield, a young man she met before. Later, she is surprised to learn that Don Quixote was Belfield. Angered at Cecilia’s courtesy to Belfield, Sir Robert insults him at the opera; a duel results, and Belfield is wounded. A young man, Mortimer Delvile, who is courteously attentive to Cecilia, proves to be the domino and the only son of her guardian. He is the pride and hope of his family, whose fortune he is to recoup by marriage. Cecilia visits his mother and is charmed by her graciousness and wit. She is disturbed, however, by the knowledge that she is universally believed to be betrothed to either Sir Robert or Belfield. Monckton, feeling that the Delviles are the only threat to him, attempts to destroy her friendship with them.
Cecilia meets and immediately likes Henrietta Belfield. When she visits her new friend, she finds Henrietta nursing her wounded brother, whom Mortimer wishes to aid. Seeing Cecilia there, Mortimer believes that she is in love with Belfield. Having been educated above his station, Belfield has grown to feel contempt for business. He is clever and pleasant but unable to settle down to anything. Although Cecilia refuses Sir Robert’s proposal, she sees that Harrel is still bent on the marriage. Monckton’s constant warnings against the Delviles disturbs her, for she is now in love with Mortimer. Knowing his father’s pride, however, she determines to conquer her feelings.
Cecilia, who previously discharged some debts for Harrel, is now so alarmed by his threats of suicide that she pledges herself to a total of seven thousand additional pounds. Since Briggs will not advance the money, she is forced to borrow from a usurer.
Mortimer, learning that Cecilia loves neither Sir Robert nor Belfield, betrays his own love for her—and then avoids her. Cecilia discovers that Henrietta is in love with Mortimer. Mrs. Belfield, believing that Cecilia loves her son, constantly urges him to propose to her.
Cecilia lends another thousand pounds...
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to Harrel, who is to escape his creditors by leaving the country. Meanwhile, his wife is to live with her brother until Cecilia’s house is ready. Harrel shoots himself, however, leaving a note for Cecilia in which he reveals that her marriage to Sir Robert is to have canceled a gambling debt. Monckton discharges Cecilia’s debt with the usurer; she is to repay him on coming of age. Against his wishes, she goes with the Delviles to their castle. Only Mrs. Delvile is agreeable there. The family is too proud to encourage visitors, and Mortimer still avoids Cecilia. Much later, during a thunderstorm in which he contracts a fever, he betrays his true emotions. Cecilia is puzzled and hurt; her emotions intensify when Mrs. Delvile, who has guessed the feelings of both Mortimer and Cecilia, lets Cecilia know that they are not for each other. Mortimer, before going away for his health, tells Cecilia that his family will never accept the change-of-name clause in the will.
Cecilia then goes to live with an old friend. There she is surprised to see Mortimer’s dog, sent, she discovers later, as a joke, unknown to the Delviles. She speaks aloud of her love for its master and turns to discover Mortimer beside her. She agrees to a secret wedding, but Monckton, chosen as their confidant, persuades her of the wrongness of the act. Cecilia goes on to London with the intention of breaking off the match, but discovery makes her feel she is compromised, and she agrees to go through with the wedding. She cannot continue, however, after a disguised woman interrupts the ceremony. Later, Mrs. Delvile, whose family pride exceeds her love for Cecilia, makes her promise to give up Mortimer. She renounces him in a passionate scene during which Mrs. Delvile bursts a blood vessel. Cecilia consoles her misery by acts of charity that Monckton, feeling that she is squandering his money, tries in vain to prevent.
Finally of age, Cecilia goes to London with the Moncktons. There she discharges her debt to Monckton. Abused by Mr. Delvile, she is sure that someone slandered her. When Cecilia goes to visit Henrietta, Mr. Delvile sees her there. Having just heard Mrs. Belfield say that Cecilia loves her son, his suspicions of Cecilia’s impurity are confirmed. Mrs. Harrel and Henrietta move with Cecilia into her new home. Mortimer comes to tell her that both his parents have agreed to a plan. If she will renounce her uncle’s fortune, he will marry her, although she will have only the ten thousand pounds inherited from her father. Mr. Delvile knows, however, that she has already lost her father’s money. Enraged at his father’s treachery, Mortimer is determined to marry Cecilia, even though she is portionless. She agrees, but only if his mother will consent. Again, a secret wedding is planned, this time with Mrs. Delvile’s approbation. They are married; Cecilia returns to her house, and Mortimer goes to inform his father.
A woman Cecilia befriends identifies Mrs. Monckton’s companion as the person who had stopped the first wedding. Mortimer is prevented from telling his father of the marriage by the scandals with which Delvile charges Cecilia. Upon learning that the slanderer is Monckton, Mortimer fights and wounds him and is forced to flee. The man who is to inherit Cecilia’s fortune, since her husband did not take her name, demands his rights. Cecilia determines to join her husband. Mrs. Harrel takes Henrietta with her to Arnott’s house. Cecilia hopes that Henrietta, as miserable in her hopeless love for Mortimer as Arnott is in his for Cecilia, will comfort and be comforted by him.
In London, Cecilia consults Belfield about her trip. Mrs. Belfield, hoping to get her son married to Cecilia, leaves them alone when Mortimer enters. The meeting seems to confirm his father’s accusations, and he sends her to wait for him at his father’s house. Mr. Delvile refuses to admit her. Wild with fear that Mortimer will fight a duel with Belfield, she begins a distracted search for her husband. Fevered, delirious, and alone, she is locked up by strangers. When Mortimer finds her, convinced of her purity by Belfield, she is too sick to know him.
After many days of uncertainty, Cecilia eventually recovers. Monckton also is out of danger and grudgingly admits that he deliberately lied to Mr. Delvile about Cecilia’s moral character. Mr. Delvile then accepts her as his daughter. Mrs. Delvile recovers her health, and Mrs. Harrel marries again and resumes her life of careless frivolity. Arnott and Henrietta marry. With Mortimer’s help, Belfield finally settles down to an army career. Monckton lives on in bitterness and misery. Impressed by Cecilia’s unselfishness and sweetness, Mortimer’s aunt wills her a fortune. Cecilia is then able to continue her charities, though never extravagantly. She does occasionally regret the loss of her own fortune but wisely recognizes that life cannot be absolutely perfect.