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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 people she meets. When the flighty Miss Larolles intently recalls the fortunate circumstance of obtaining a last-minute invitation to a party only when a friend became ill and was unable to attend, Cecilia laughs at the irony. Later, however, Cecilia learns that such insensitivity has its serious side and potentially tragic consequences, as in the case of the Hill family, ill and starving because Mr. Harrel refuses to pay Mr. Hill for work done months ago. Cecilia’s attempt to persuade Mr. Harrel to pay his workers are the first of many frustrations in dealing with the callous, cruel insensitivity of many members of the privileged classes. Her generosity in helping this family and others, which ironically contributes to the depletion of her fortune and to her own destitution, gives her a sense of purpose in life.

The superficial, vain judgments of people in regard to status become painfully and more personally evident to Cecilia when she falls in love with young Mortimer Delvile, whose family coldly rejects her as an appropriate bride because of her inferior social standing and because they are not willing for Mortimer to give up their family surname. After many tragedies and much suffering, including a period in which Cecilia is first penniless and then driven temporarily insane, the marriage is sanctioned and the family united. Although the costs have been exceedingly high, Cecilia observes and accepts the reality that life will always be imperfect, that good people can have serious flaws, and that love has its qualifications.

Context

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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

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*Bury

*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

*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.

Violent Bank

Violent Bank. Summer villa of the Harrels—another example of how they live beyond their means, while compromising Cecilia’s inheritance. The importance that the Harrels place upon external appearances of wealth and position is emphasized by the ostentation of both their homes.

Mr. Briggs’s home

Mr. Briggs’s home. In contrast to the Harrels, the London home of the miserly Mr. Briggs, another of Cecilia’s guardians, is a painful reflection of its owner’s frugality. This home, which Cecilia finds completely comfortless, exemplifies the error of valuing money for itself alone, with no thought to the needs of others in society.

*St. James Square

*St. James Square. Location of the London home of the third of Cecilia’s guardians, Mr. Delvile, and his wife. This home reflects the old name and social standing of the Delvile family and the overwhelming pride that the Delviles have in their family name and position.

Delvile Castle

Delvile Castle. Country estate of the Delviles. Owned by the Delvile family for generations, the castle is situated on a large tract of parkland. Though impressive from a distance, it shows wear and needs repair. While its past history is impressive, its former glory has dimmed. Nevertheless, Mr. Delvile views the estate as an important part of his son’s birthright and as an emblem of the social stature of his family, even though the family no longer has the resources needed to maintain the estate properly.

Bibliography

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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 French Revolution to the darker view evident in Burney’s later works and rejects the critical consensus that the quality of her work declined after the first two novels.

Doody, Margaret Anne. Frances Burney: The Life in the Works. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988. Biographies of Burney abound, but this recent volume acknowledges studies of Burney which shed new light on her writing, producing a more accurate and a less sentimental critical biography. Includes extensive notes useful for bibliographic information, as well as a family tree of the Burney family.

Epstein, Julia. The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women’s Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Epstein’s objective is to point out an overlooked theme in Burney’s writing: the tension between the public, proper lady and the private, angry writer. The prominence of violence in the novels prefigures the direction of the novel toward the gothic, a genre dominated by women. Extensive notes and a selected but lengthy bibliography are included.

Rogers, Katherine M. Frances Burney: The World of “Female Difficulties.” New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990. Looks at the novel as social satire, as depicting an awkward blending of individuality and conformity, and as accepting and resisting society. Burney’s intense depiction of the psychology of women is perhaps the author’s greatest contribution to the development of the novel.

Simons, Judy. Fanny Burney. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1987. Comprehensive study of Burney’s works, including journals and plays. Argues that the novel, although lacking spontaneity, demonstrates a maturing of vision and incisive social criticism. Cecilia is not a typical eighteenth century heroine of sensibility, but a rationalist, a woman who wants independence.

Straub, Kristina. Divided Fictions: Fanny Burney and Feminine Strategy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. Straub studies the tension of women’s issues in Burney’s time, arguing that what have previously been viewed as flaws in Burney’s fiction expose criteria that may not be appropriate for women writers; indeed, these very elements might provide even greater insights. Contains notes and an index.

White, Eugene. Fanny Burney, Novelist: A Study in Technique: “Evelina,” “Cecilia,” “Camilla,” “ The Wanderer.” Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press, 1960. Studying the technical aspects of plot, characterization, manner of presentation, and style, White demonstrates how Burney made use of contemporary techniques and also made contributions that shaped the direction of the novel. Suggests that Burney is a more sophisticated craftsperson than has been acknowledged.

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