Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 743
After the stunning success of her first novel, Evelina: Or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778), which she wrote in secret, Fanny Burney was in the unfamiliar position of being commissioned to write a novel. Many critics and historians have speculated that the strong influence of two men—Burney’s father, Dr. Charles Burney, and her mentor, Samuel “Daddy” Crisp—in addition to these circumstances, accounts for the more self-conscious, less spontaneous, and darker view that is characteristic of this and later works. In Cecilia, which shares certain elements of plot and themes with its predecessor, Burney’s objective is to expose the hypocrisy and materialism of upper-class London society. Abandoning the epistolary form used in that first novel that was so popular in the eighteenth century, Burney presents a third-person, omniscient narrative which covers diverse personal viewpoints and various social boundaries.
Originally published in five volumes, Cecilia is considerably longer than Evelina, permitting Burney to introduce a greater abundance—some consider it an excess—of diverse, eccentric characters, who are intricately woven into various related subplots. Although there is considerable disagreement in the assessment of Cecilia, most agree that the second novel is weaker, more loosely constructed, more contrived, and less natural than Evelina. Although Cecilia’s basic plot and primary theme are similar, the second novel clearly presents a darker view of life, with the expected happy ending somewhat tempered by the preceding events. Burney herself responded to this objection from some of her closest friends, insisting that Cecilia presents a more realistic view of life’s compromises.
The omniscient point of view, though it offers Burney considerable flexibility, seems inconsistently applied, withholding information and not allowing the reader to draw inferences on the basis of the action and dialogue. A common complaint about Cecilia is the highly artificial, melodramatic dialogue between major characters in some of the novel’s most crucial scenes. The language, even in highly emotional passages, is often stilted, overly formal, and distracting. Ironically, it is also the language of some of Burney’s characters, most notably Mr. Briggs, that has inspired some praise of Burney for her innovative attempt to distinguish between characters’ speech patterns as they reflect personalities.
Another troublesome aspect of Cecilia is its heavy reliance on coincidence to generate plot. Mortimer and Cecilia seem almost fated to encounter each other at times and places that seem to confirm damaging misconceptions. The main story depends on these mistakes about character and presumptions about alliances in order to support its theme of pride and prejudice. Although coincidence is a characteristic plot device of eighteenth century novels, some readers find that Cecilia contains a superfluous number of incidents which lack credibility.
The two major themes of the novel revolve around the love story between...
(The entire section contains 743 words.)
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