Thursday, October 23, 2014

Jane Austen & Cecilia: An Introduction

Frances Burney (1752-1840) was an English-born novelist, diarist, playwright and contemporary of Jane Austen. With no formal education and beginning to “scribble” at the age of ten—the daughter of an obscure English musician—she went on to have acquaintance among both famous writers and nobility. She led a fascinating life (if you’re interested, Wikipedia has a good, informative, manageable write-up on her). Cecilia was her second major novel, first published in the summer of 1782.

In reality, Burney’s work is much closer to Dickens than Austen—as regarding style, content, social concerns, and definitely—I think—in how she approached her heroines (both their strengths and weaknesses). Not to mention her multitudinous characters! Margaret Ann Doody states in an introduction, “Cecilia…looks forward to works such as Little Dorrit and Middlemarch, though Burney does not share anything like George Eliot's belief in historically appointed progress. Burney’s works were important to Jane Austen, but Burney is not truly in the Austenian tradition. She is in a tradition that includes Smollett and Dickens. And not just the early Dickens—the Harrels look forward to the Limmles and the Veneerings of Our Mutual Friend.”

That being said, I think there are some positively fascinating comparisons to be found in Austen, particularly focusing on Emma this time around. (As a quick note, other than the fact that her father—the Reverend Austen—did mention one of Frances Burney’s works in a letter, I wasn’t able to certainly and directly ascertain from Austen’s own correspondence that she read Cecilia specifically—though it seems highly likely.) 

However, other sources (including this following preface) definitely reference Austen as having read it: "Fanny's Cecilia came out last summer, and is as much liked and read, I believe, as any book ever was," wrote Charlotte Burney (sister of the author) in Jan. 1783. "She had 250 pounds for it from Payne and Cadell. Most people say she ought to have had a thousand. It is now going into the third edition, though Payne owns that they printed two thousand at the first edition, and Lowndes told me five hundred was the common number for a novel." {(from): The Early Diary of Frances Burney, with a selection from her correspondence, and from the journals of her sisters Susan and Charlotte Burney. Edited by Annie Raine Ellis. 1889. Vol. II. p. 307.}

“The manuscript of Cecilia was submitted to Dr Burney and Mr. Crisp during its composition, and their suggestions were in some cases adopted, as we learn from the Diary. Dr Johnson was not consulted, but a desire at once to imitate and to please him evidently controlled the work.

“Under these circumstances it is naturally less fresh and spontaneous than Evelina, but it is more mature. The touch is surer and the plot more elaborate. We cannot to-day fully appreciate the "conflict scene between mother and son," for which, Miss Burney tells us, the book was written; but the pictures of eighteenth century affectations are all alive, and the story is thoroughly absorbing, except, perhaps, in the last book.

“Miss Burney often took the name of her characters from her acquaintances, and it seems probable that some of the "types" in Cecilia are also drawn from real life. The title of Miss Austen's Pride and Prejudice was borrowed from Cecilia, and some points of resemblance may be traced between the two novels.”

I firmly believe the scope of Emma goes far beyond parody, so I don’t believe Austen was necessarily doing so (except to maybe poke a little fun in passing), but after spending one long summer afternoon minutely skimming through the 941 page volume of Cecilia, here are a few interesting plot point comparisons I came up with:

~ There are hard-hearted parent/guardian figures in both (the Delviles and the Churchills)
~ Both Emma and Cecilia have a friend/protégé: Harriet and Henrietta
~ Both have a longstanding (yet of marriageable age) family friend/advisor/mentor: Mr. Knightley and Mr. Monckton
~Cecilia is always being held up as the height of perfection; Emma...not so much
~Cecilia fears her friend has engaged the hero’s affections—as does Emma
~Mr. Delvile (Cecilia’s hero, suspects at least one other man’s involvement with her—and of course there is Mr. Knightley’s concern about Frank Churchill
~There is also in both a suspected duplicity on the part of the most prominent young man in the case
~Cecilia (after *Spoiler here* being secretly married, goes temporarily insane from the jealous, headstrong behavior of her groom (who has taken up a wrong idea) *end of spoiler*…while Jane Fairfax gets ill over her secret engagement and Frank’s behavior toward Emma. (Emma herself, of course, is always healthy.)

So, reading some of Austen’s contemporaries, it’s easy to see how critics often accused her of being occupied with tiresome, everyday concerns. Firmly rooted in life, Austen would not be drawn into melodrama—her wonderful sense of humor and realism were too strong for it. And, of course, in paring down her style to a simple, pertinent clarity, Austen hit a chord that remains constant over changing centuries and styles. Her people are real with real, identifiable concerns.

And yet there’s another aspect of her work that’s easy to miss. Even in Northanger Abbey (which is quite possibly Austen at her most melodramatic), she’s making a point of double irony. Which is: not that such things (rakes, proud and mercenary fathers, murders, etc.) don’t take place or aren’t in the world, but that when such situations crop up in real life they’re generally not so much colorful and frightening as awkward and uncomfortable—a dashing and rakish Captain Tilney, a vulgar Thorpe, and a proud and angrily rude General Tilney. In essence, the situations are more dangerous in their realistic, daily setting. It’s much easier to be taken in by a charming, enthusiastic—and on the whole well-meaning—Frank Churchill than by a masked and booted villain seeking to carry you off in his coach and four.

Returning to Emma and Cecilia, I mentioned a few comparison points above, but I’ve also compiled a very general quote overview for your interest and enjoyment. It’s attached as a pdf here. Some of the quotes are fairly lengthy (so feel free to enjoy them at your leisure), but I think you’ll find them most interesting!


  1. Somehow I have never had the desire to read any of Fanny Burney's books. But I find the comparisons you did between this and Emma fascinating! I love reading things that inspired authors I admire, so perhaps I'll have to give Cecilia a try at some point. At least skim it minutely...

    1. Hamlette,
      I'm so glad you found it interesting! And exactly. Sometimes there's an author I'm not particularly interested in/wouldn't spend hours and hours reading, but knowing at least a bit about them really broadens my perspective on other authors/favorites. It's so fascinating to see that good authors don't just come out of a void -- it's really all a wide-ranging, centuries-long conversation. :)

    2. I love it when an author will say something like, "So-and-so influenced me," or "I really enjoy so-and-so's books" and I've either read that author too, or can find and read one of their books. Makes me understand an author a bit more. Like Raymond Chandler saying he liked Dashiell Hammett's books because Hammett took murder out of the parlor and put it back in the gutter where it belonged, so I read some of DH's books and was like, "Wow, I can see why RC liked these."

  2. Haha, I loved this part:
    "In essence, the situations are more dangerous in their realistic, daily setting. It’s much easier to be taken in by a charming, enthusiastic—and on the whole well-meaning—Frank Churchill than by a masked and booted villain seeking to carry you off in his coach and four." :)
    I've never heard of Fanny Burney before-did you like her book(s)? Would you recommend them?

    1. Natalie,
      So glad you liked it! ;) And yes, from what I've read I could recommend them. They're very moralistic---but fine reading. I'm not sure worth they're worth a great time investment, though. Among Austen's contemporaries, I'd first suggest The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth. In fact, I'd highly recommend that one. Edgeworth is closer to Burney than Austen in style, but I think she realizes the characters/conflict much better and reading it, I found myself memorably gripped by the story itself. It's much shorter and more manageable, too. :)

    2. Heidi,
      Okay thanks so much! :) I'll have to check if my library has The Absentee. Hope they do!


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