(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 entire section is 743 words.)