Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1109

Following the phenomenal success of Burney’s first novel, Evelina: Or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778), Cecilia: Or, Memoirs of an Heiress shares thematic elements with its predecessor but demonstrates a marked shift in technique and style. Burney abandons the epistolary form of her first novel, adopting a third-person, omniscient narrative. This narrative approach provides a distant perspective that allows the author to delve into more diverse personal viewpoints and to cross various social boundaries. Critics have traditionally viewed this novel as flawed compared to Burney’s earlier effort, but Cecilia was nevertheless admired by the great Samuel Johnson. Although the novel lacks the sentimental happy ending characteristic of eighteenth century fiction, thereby provoking much complaint among her readers, the novel was commercially highly successful. The novel’s literary influence was considerable. Novelist William Godwin first parodied it and then tried to emulate it in The Adventures of Caleb Williams: Or, Things as They Are (1794); Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) is also indebted to Cecilia.

The novel combines two major themes, those of romantic love and the destructive power of the love of money. These themes are interwoven in the major plot line and in the numerous subplots involving characters who come in and out of Cecilia’s life. The tension of the novel derives from Cecilia’s attempt to reconcile two impulses in her life: the desires to marry the man she loves and to have independence and meaningful work. The great irony of the novel is that to have one, she must surrender the other.

When Cecilia arrives in London, her country upbringing has prepared her to see through the sham of society, and she is aware that her well-attended reception springs more out of interest in her wealth than out of genuine regard for her personally. With a too trusting nature, at first Cecilia finds the frivolous nature of the upper classes merely amusing. When the flighty Miss Larolles, for example, recalls how a friend’s fortunate illness allows her to attend a party in her place, Cecilia does not realize, as she later learns through the course of the novel, that such insensitivity can and often does lead to downright cruelty. As Cecilia gradually discovers the true nature of some of the people she trusts, Burney exposes the hypocrisy and materialism of London society in increasingly harsh terms.

Understandably, Cecilia is repeatedly disappointed by these people. Cecilia considers Mrs. Harrel an old and close friend and looks forward to living with her; however, Mrs. Harrel is entirely absorbed with her own vain pursuits, caught up in her husband’s irresponsible insistence on living beyond their means and allowing him to take advantage of Cecilia, thus exhausting his ward’s fortune. When Cecilia discovers the utter destitution of the family of Mr. Hill, a laborer whom Harrel refuses to pay, the young woman must face the extreme, tragic consequences of this reckless disregard for others. Mrs. Delvile, seemingly gracious and kind, withdraws her friendship upon learning of her son’s interest in marrying Cecilia, whom she considers socially inferior. Mortimer listens to malicious gossip and jumps to conclusions about Cecilia’s behavior regarding men and money. Furthermore, he weakly surrenders to his family’s vain rejection of Cecilia as an appropriate bride. His careless actions lead to Cecilia’s madness, homelessness, and complete isolation. Her trusted confidant, Mr. Monckton, turns out to be the one responsible for spreading the false rumors about Cecilia and most deliberately sabotaging her happiness. Finally, none of Cecilia’s guardians cares for her. One squanders her fortune, one advises her out of his own miserliness, and another considers her a nuisance and socially inadequate.

Society’s obsession with wealth and related superficial concerns is at the root of all of this deceit. Mrs. Belfield, in educating her son to be part of the upper class, destroys him by distorting his values and ignores her other children, including Henrietta, the most loyal and noble character in the entire novel and Cecilia’s only true friend. The Delviles’ obsession with their family name, despite the fact that it has long ceased reflecting any real power or wealth, is the most frustrating example of the emptiness of society’s values. Such vanity leads to much suffering and ultimately threatens to ruin the lives of Cecilia and Mortimer.

Although the plot contains an excess of coincidences, and the novel presents a number of minor characters who serve no plot function and who do not generate much interest, the novel does contain some memorable, well-crafted scenes. The masquerade ball intrigues, in which Cecilia makes mistakes about the identities of her disguised suitors, provide suspense and irony. The suicide of Harrel at Vauxhall is dramatic and affecting. His note, naming Cecilia’s refusal to marry Sir Robert Floyer as the cause of his financial ruin, is a final revelation into the character of Cecilia’s selfish guardian.

Although much of the dialogue is stilted and artificial and the authorial narrative intrusive, some of Burney’s colorful characters emerge vividly. The miserly Mr. Briggs’s speech is abbreviated, reflecting his stinginess, as if he does not want to waste words any more than he does money. Captain Aresby sprinkles his speech with French phrases self-consciously, a detail that allows Burney to provide humor to the novel as well as satirically expose such social pretenses.

Critical assessment of Cecilia diverges significantly. Some critics argue that Cecilia and subsequent works by Burney are inferior to Evelina and that Burney lost her spontaneity and abandoned her genuine voice as she yielded to the pressures of fame and the expectations of her readership. Others insist that Burney progressively improved, and that the later novels demonstrate a maturity and a growing sophistication of thought. This discrepancy can be attributed to the position of Cecilia in the development of the novel. Less conventional in theme as well as structure than Evelina, Burney’s second novel is a product of some risk-taking. The unsatisfying, perhaps unconvincing, reconciliation of Cecilia with Mortimer and his mother, which ends the novel, and Cecilia’s acceptance of human love as being by nature imperfect, do not correspond to those of any previous genre. The philosopher Edmund Burke, who otherwise admired Burney’s work, wished for either a happier or a more miserable ending to Cecilia, not the compromise with which it ends. Frances Burney insisted that her characterizations and her novel’s conclusion are more realistic in their ambiguity. As Burney attempted to mirror a society she viewed with an increasingly mature and critical eye, such innovations were perhaps inevitable.

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