Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Fanny Burney is one of the few women novelists whose reputation as an important figure in the development of the novel has been traditionally acknowledged. Writing in formats developed by dominant novelists Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, Burney is also often singled out as a major influence on Jane Austen, whose classic work Pride and Prejudice (1813) borrows many elements, including the title itself, from Cecilia: Or, Memoirs of an Heiress, Burney’s second novel.

Focusing on the issues of romantic love and the use and abuse of money, Burney’s narrative moves chronologically through a seventeen-month period surrounding Cecilia’s inheritance of a family fortune, provided she abides by the restriction that she not surrender her surname if she marries. This stipulation, which is first mentioned casually, will turn out to be the pivotal issue of Cecilia’s future happiness. The novel opens with Cecilia’s farewells to her friends in her quiet, rural hometown of Bury in Suffolk before she moves to London, where she will reside with one of her three guardians, Mr. Harrel, until she reaches the age of twenty-one. Although she is clearly out of place in London society, Cecilia is levelheaded, gracious, and confident, and she astutely discerns that her enthusiastic reception has more to do with her inheritance than any genuine fondness for her personally. She is at first amused by the egocentric, frivolous, shallow manner of the...

(The entire section is 487 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Fanny Burney has long been acknowledged as an important literary figure in the history and development of the English novel, although only in the last half of the twentieth century have critics begun to subject her work to intense and in-depth analysis. Both Evelina and Cecilia were enormously popular, as were her later works, and Burney was one of the first women to make a living as a writer. Yet, as a woman in the eighteenth century, Burney felt compelled to conceal her writing until after the success of Evelina.

Cecilia presents an atypical eighteenth century heroine who is intelligent, who cherishes independence, and who is emotionally stronger than her mate. The novel offers a rare, perhaps visionary insight into the psychology of women, as it examines the tension between women’s dual desires for love and an independent sense of purpose in life. The critical evaluation that Burney’s novels decline after Evelina is often based in large part on the detection of an increasingly dark view in subsequent works. Others argue that this changing perspective reflects an increasingly mature vision of the world. As satire, Cecilia demonstrates that even when a woman has the desire, the capability, and the financial resources to be independent, society tends to disallow such freedom.

Feminist critics have proposed that Cecilia’s episode of madness might ironically be a sign of her rationality, as it is the only reasonable response to her frustration and powerlessness in the society that Burney satirizes. The violence that is an ever-present factor in Cecilia further suggests that rather than looking back to discover Burney’s literary debts to established, male novelists such as Fielding and Richardson, scholars should look ahead to trace Burney’s contributions to the gothic emphasis in late eighteenth century fiction, a genre dominated by women.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Bury (BIHR-ee). Rural Suffolk town in which Cecilia grows up and where her family has a long history of being rich farmers. Her background is thus one of wealth earned by physical labor, not one of old family name and old money—an important distinction in eighteenth century England. The town of Bury, its inhabitants and environs, represents goodness and innocence, and contrasts with the more sophisticated and duplicitous life of London. After spending some time in London, Cecilia seeks refuge in Bury and stays with her old friend Mrs. Charlton, while her own home is being readied for her.


*London. Political, cultural, and social center of England, to which Cecilia goes when she is about to reach her “majority” and must prepare for her “coming out” as a young lady of society. There she stays in a succession of her guardians’ home and finds each objectionable for a different reason.

*Portman Square

*Portman Square. Location of the London home of Cecilia’s guardian Mr. Harrel and his wife. Their extravagant house, which is always undergoing some kind of physical improvements that involve contracts with architects and laborers, reflects their own dangerously profligate lifestyle, a way of living Cecilia has never experienced and finds distressing. For example, to prepare for a masquerade party, the Harrels redecorate their entire home.


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(Great Characters in Literature)

Adelstein, Michael. Fanny Burney. New York: Twayne, 1968. This study incorporates biographical and historical elements with a sound, comprehensive analysis of Burney’s works. In his examination of Cecilia, Adelstein focuses on the theme of prudence in regard to money. A selected bibliography and an index are included.

Cutting-Gray, Joanne. Woman as “Nobody” and the Novels of Fanny Burney. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992. Cutting-Gray detects significance in Burney’s writing to “Nobody” in her diary and argues that the recurring theme of namelessness in Burney’s work reflects the identity problems of eighteenth century women. Contains informative notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Daugherty, Tracy Edgar. Narrative Techniques in the Novels of Fanny Burney. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. A reexamination of the technical aspects of Burney’s novels in the light of modern narrative theory. Daugherty considers point of view, plot, tempo, and characterization. He also evaluates Burney’s novels within a broad context and objectively outlines the weaknesses as well as the strengths of Cecilia. A bibliography and an index are provided.

Devlin, David Douglas. The Novels and Journals of Fanny Burney. London: Macmillan, 1987. Devlin attributes the influence of the...

(The entire section is 597 words.)