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 Cecilia and Mortimer and the issue of her money. The various subplots also employ these two themes, love and money, by complex and sometimes coincidental parallels in the lives of some of the minor characters who come into Cecilia’s life. The novel is laden with irony, and the greatest irony and source of conflict is that Cecilia must give up one to have the other, that she is forced to choose between her love for Mortimer and her desire to gain her inheritance. The destructive potential of money is demonstrated at its worst in the story of Mr. and Mrs. Harrel, who continue to spend lavishly without having the funds to support their lifestyle. Even when the creditors come to take possession of the house, the couple insist on going out for the evening to squelch rumors of their...
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bankruptcy. Ultimately, this recklessness leads to Mr. Harrel’s suicide, but the couple’s financial irresponsibility has also ruined a number of other lives, including Cecilia’s, in the process.
The superficial value placed on wealth and status is reflected in the story of the Belfields, a working-class family with aspirations. Mrs. Belfield has showered all of her attention on her son, seeing that he is educated and encouraged to seek the company of the wealthy. She not only neglects her other children but also convinces them that they are socially inferior. Her daughter, Henrietta, probably the most noble character in the entire novel, never questions her supposed inadequacy. The striking difference between the devoted Henrietta and the insensitive Mr. Delvile best demonstrate to Cecilia that power and wealth have little, if anything, to do with character.