ENL 6236 – Eighteenth-Century Novel and Theory

Dr. Runge


Class 11 – Frances Burney, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, eds. Peter Sabor and Margaret Doody


Note:  the introduction offers some interesting angles from which to view the novel, but it also gives away the plot.  So, I would suggest that this is optional reading until you have finished.  The indexes in the back are important; please read the first (Burney’s cancelled introduction to Cecilia); the third, fourth and fifth are likewise useful, but they too give away elements of the plot.  Decide which you prefer, a knowledgeable first reading or a fuller understanding after the fact.


For those of you researching the novel for class, check the “Select Bibliography” on pp. xlii-xliv.







Published in 1782, Cecilia is the second of Burney’s novels.  What historical events mark this era – political, economic, social?  See also the chronology of Burney’s life p. xlv-xlviii.


To what extent is the text marked by its history?  What evidence is there in the narrative that this is composed in the early 1780s?  How does this compare with Pamela (published 1740-1) and Joseph Andrews (published 1742)? 


What is the significance of “public” history in the novel?  What is the difference between domestic and political history as it is represented in Cecilia? 


In our introduction, Margaret Doody claims that “this novel is nothing less than an examination of a whole society as a structure and a system.  Burney gives us a cross-section from the Delviles at the top through the Belfields in the middle to the poor Hill family and the poor pew-opener at the bottom of the economic and social ladder.  Throughout, she makes us aware of the power and significance of money” (xviii).


What is the significance of this theme in the first part of the novel?   How does she achieve this examination?  What are the implications in terms of character and plot?


As you consider the many stories involved in the novel, consider Perry’s overarching thesis that the new emphasis on the conjugal family undermined the ties of consanguineal family.  What evidence of this can you see presented in the novel?  What types of family relations appear to be under stress?  What appear to be valued above others?


“It is not that the conduct books disapprove of dancing, enjoying music, playing cards, or even attending theatrical performances when they are enjoyed in the sanctuary of one’s parlor.  This is a difference that both Austen and Burney scrupulously observe along with conduct-book authors. It is a woman’s participation in public spectacle that injures her, for as an object of display, she always loses value as a subject” (Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction 77).  To what extent does Cecilia support this?  What are the characteristics of the conduct-book ideal represented in the character of Cecilia?  To what extent does this representation involve her in conflicts which supply the action of the plot?


To what extent does Cecilia represent ideals of the virginal, marriageable woman (as detailed by Perry)?  How does this compare with Doody’s claim that Cecilia enters the world of London society as a sort of parodic man” (xvi)?



Literary history


Watt classes Burney with Smollett and Sterne as novelists who write after Richardson and Fielding and  who rise above mediocrity or worse, but she gets little attention otherwise.  Watt views Austen as the author who represents the full flowering of English novelistic art in that she reconciles the conflicts between Richardson and Fielding:  “In this as in much else Jane Austen was the heir of Fanny Burney, herself no inconsiderable figure in bringing together the divergent directions which the geniuses of Richarson and Fielding had imposed upon the novel.  Both women novelists followed Richardson – the Richardson of the less intense domestic conflicts of Sir Charles Grandison – in their minute presentation of daily life. At the same time Fanny Burney and Jane Austen followed Fielding in adopting a more detached attitude to their narrative material, and in evaluating it from a comic and objective point of view” (296).


Compare and evaluate Watt’s sense of Burney’s place in literary history with your own.  What are the strengths and weaknesses of his analysis?


Armstrong: “Historical studies of the novel represent early novels and romances as a rather unsavory lot.  In fact, there is good reason to believe that novels did not become literary works until the twentieth century.  By the late eighteenth century, however, certain novels such as those by Burney and other lady novelists were certainly considered polite” (37).


What does this distinction – between polite and literary – suggest about Burney’s novels?  Similarly, what does the title “lady novelists” imply?


Recall Perry’s offhand comment that the period of fiction from 1748-1818 is “the terra incognita between Samuel Richardson and Jane Austen” (3).  How is this different from Watt or Armstrong?


To what extent does Burney’s novel follow the tradition of Richardson?  Can you make a case that Burney’s narrative style takes from both traditions?  Or, can you make a case that these categories are insufficient to analyze the literary style of the narrative? 


What categories might you employ instead – from drama or poetry?  From the cultural imperatives of entertainment and instruction?  From other forms of writing?


To what might you attribute the fact that the only theorist we have read who mentions Cecilia is Perry (2004)?


Literary value:


In her DLB article, Doody writes that “in this novel Burney abandons the shelter of the epistolary mode and develops a third-person narrative voice mingling gravity and humor….  Occasionally the voice or style of thought of a character enters the authorial narration; Burney is one of the earliest English novelists to employ free indirect speech, or style indirect libre (94).


How does her narrative style differ from that of Richardson and Fielding?  What are the strengths?  What are the weaknesses?




In this vast canvas of society, Burney introduces a number of colorful and distinct characters – while we will be with all of these through the end of the novel, let us begin our analysis of some of the more prominent characters:   the Harrels, Albany, Briggs, the Delviles, the Belfields, Hills, Monckton and of course Cecilia.


What are some of the characteristics of these characters?

How does Burney achieve them? 

In what sense does she borrow from the novel tradition of Richardson and Fielding? 

Do you see evidence of borrowing from the novels of amorous intrigue?  (Why or why not?)

Where do you see innovation or departure?


Analyze Cecilia’s position in the world as a fictional heroine.  Who is in control of her?  What are her marriageable traits?  How do these circumstances drive the main plot of the novel?  What might it say about shifts in family alliances and the role of the commodification of women in the marriage transaction (pace Perry)?


Why is Cecilia concerned about “benevolence” and the appropriate use of her riches?  How does each guardian represent competing value systems in terms of her inheritance?  What does the novel appear to be saying about the use of money?


At this point in the novel, is marriage a decision based on love or mercenary motives?  Whose love and whose monetary gain?


How does the novel represent the shifting economic landscape of eighteenth-century England?  Note the interaction between the trade classes and the wealthy gentry?  Who takes care of the poor in the novel? 


What is Cecilia’s plan for self-improvement?  What are the implications of this plan for a young, attractive heiress?  What obstacles prevent her from realizing the contentment she envisions from this plan?


Evaluate the scene of the masquerade.


What is the significance of executions in this novel?


Why do Mortimer and Cecilia constantly misunderstand one another?


Is there a relationship between dueling and gambling?  If so, what is it and what does it say about the society in which Cecilia finds herself?  Are these gendered behaviors?  What role does Cecilia have in either?


Analyze Belfield’s story (see volume II chapter VI).  How does Perry’s examination of the shifts in economy and family relations over the course of the eighteenth century help to explain some of Belfield’s complexities and the severe dependency of his female relations?


Examine the scenes of public entertainment in the novel thus far.  What happens in the various arenas?  How would you describe the characters that come together?  What is the point of such interactions?  If scenes of public sociability marked the advancement of civilized culture, what are the attributes of civility represented in these scenes?


Examine the various suitors for Cecilia’s hand.  Who is worthy?  Who is unworthy?  Why or why not?


Examine the various mother figures in the novel.  What is the significance of these characters?