ENL 6236 – Eighteenth-Century Novel and Theory

Dr. Runge


Class 14 – Frances Burney, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, eds. Peter Sabor and Margaret Doody

                Vols. 3-4 pp. 321-714


Recommended:  Julia Epstein,  “Marginality in Frances Burney’s novels” in Cambridge Guide to the Eighteenth-Century Novel, ed. John Richetti (Cambridge UP, 1996)  198- 211.




Concerns for and about people on the margins of society occupy this novel, and I wanted to focus our discussion in terms of these subjects.  There is, as usual, room to continue discussing the themes and questions pursued in the first class on this novel, as well as those that have dominated our discussion of eighteenth-century novels and theory.  In particular, as we progress through the narrative we should begin to sharpen our analyses of the historical, cultural and literary merits of Cecilia and how it demonstrates or challenges the theories of the origins of the genre.


In her DLB article, Margaret Doody writes of Burney’s representation of Mr. Harrel:  “His suicide at the Vauxhall party is one of the unforgettable scenes in eighteenth-century literature, and Harrel is a character at once comically credible, despicable and pathetic” (93)


Who and what is indicted in this scene? What makes it unforgettable? What is the significance of the chapter title “A Man of Business”?


In her introduction, Doody writes:  “the author has created a world in which it becomes impossible clearly to discern right action, to know with certainty ‘right from wrong . .   good from evil’.  Burney is certainly not employing the conduct-book formula of novel-writing whereby a heroine’s errors are incessantly pointed out in order to be corrected” (xxxiii).


This moral dilemma is apparent in her final dealings with Mr. Harrel and his wife as well as her conflict over marrying Delvile in secret.  How, if at all, are the two related? 


Julia Epstein commends Burney’s innovation of novel technique, highlighting her satire of social hierarchies:  “only in the picaresque tradition of the wandering male hero had fiction investigated class mobility to the extent that Burney foregrounds the question” (198).


In this light, evaluate the harangues of Mrs. Belfield.  What does she represent in the novel?  Why does she offend Cecilia so thoroughly?


Along similar lines, compare the arguments for democratic social arrangements in Belfield’s chapter “The Cottage” with the Mrs. Delvile’s defense of the family name in the chapter that immediately follows, “The Contest.”


Compare the significance of the cottage with “An Antique Mansion,” referring to Delvile Castle.  To what extent does Lady Honoria challenge the older order of society with her suggestions for renovating the castle into a jail?


How might these representations of social mobility be explained in terms of McKeon’s questions of virtue?  We can’t say how they are resolved but we can analyze what is at play in the conflict.



Both Epstein and Doody note the inadequacy of paternal/parental authority in Burney’s novels, which leads to the heroine’s test of marriageability.  How virtuous is she when left to her own judgment?  Evaluate Cecilia’s behavior with respect to the integrity of her advisors, including each of the guardians, Mr. Albany, and Mr. Monckton.


Doody:  “Mrs Delvile represents what the eighteenth-century critics called a ‘mixed’ character; she is one of the first such characters outside the novels of Richardson.  First reactions to Cecilia show how unusual such a concept of character still seemed.  Readers were puzzled.  They liked Mrs. Delvile through the first three volumes, appreciating her wit and kindness.  How then could a woman so charming become the obstacle to the heroine’s happiness, showing herself under pressure a tyrant and an emotional blackmailer?” (xxviii)


In what sense is Mrs. Delvile a mixed character?  Recall Johnson’s criticism of mixed characters in probable reference to Tom Jones; why are such characters problematic?  Is Burney’s characterization substantially different from Fieldings?  What is her achievement in this character?


Alternatively, evaluate Mrs. Delvile’s character as one of Perry’s “aunt” figures.  How does Cecilia’s relationship with Mrs. Delvile characterize anxieties about the cultural shift from consanguineal to conjugal families?


Epstein includes Cecilia in the tradition of the courtship novel, rather than the novel of manners.  She writes, “the eighteenth century courtship novel focuses on the delaying actions that dot the road between a young woman’s emergence from her husband’s protection and the subsumption of her identity into that of her husband.  Thereafter heroines disappear into the domestic life of marriage” (199)


In what respect is this a courtship novel?  As such, does it differ significantly from the narratives of Richardson or Fielding?  How?


The liminal space occupied by the courted lady, according to Epstein, is characterized by the heroine’s sexual awakening and simultaneous need to hold “sexuality in abeyance until all appropriate economic and social negotiations that will produce a husband for them may occur” (201).  She suggests that Burney approaches sexuality indirectly as a public exposure akin to nakedness, especially in scenes which turn out to be test cases when the heroine is tried for her marriageability.  Epstein cites both the mask-scene at the beginning of the novel and Cecilia’s mad wanderings through London at the end of the novel. 


In between, the public address to Cecilia by Albany at the Pantheon seems conspicuously similar.  Here she feels exposed and seeks shelter from men she otherwise would have avoided.  In what sense might we see Cecilia’s sexual awakening (the masquerade/ the mad wanderings after Delvile) akin or parallel to her philanthropic awakening demanded by Albany.  Likewise, Cecilia’s solitary efforts after Harrel’s suicide at Vauxhall presents another public exposure.  What are the consequences of these events?  What are the implications in terms of her liminal status?  What are we to understand about her moral autonomy?


One of the central conflicts of these volumes is between propriety and moral assertion, especially in the interactions between Delvile and Cecilia.

Again I refer to Epstein:  “Burney’s heroines are proper, decorous, and innocent, yet preternaturally aware of social danger; diffident yet fiercely self-protective; publicly self-effacing yet bent on independence of thought and action; ambiguously presented as to class yet adhering to upper class ambitions; apparently unknowing about social mores and expectations, yet acutely observant of others and conscious of their own desires” (198).


That these conflicts energize the plot of Cecilia is undoubtedly true, but the question remains as to how and to what purpose?


For instance, why is Delvile’s impetuous leave of Cecilia at Delvile Castle offensive?  Why does he apologize the following day? 


Why does Cecilia lament the exposure of her true feelings to Delvile?  She represents it as greatest mortification which will teach her bitter self-reproach. 


Why is Cecilia (and Mrs. Charlton) offended by Delvile’s proposal of a secret marriage? What are the implications?  What might be the consequences?


Given these, why does she decide to go through with the marriage ceremony?  Evaluate on the way that exquisitely painful chapter “The Torment” when Cecilia is accosted by every London character she has met on route to a supposedly clandestine meeting with Delvile.  How is she exposed?  What prevents her from maintaining her purpose en route to London?


Given this, why does she leave the altar unmarried?


Ultimately, why does she renounce the man she loves?


Also consider the following social issues in the novel:  gambling, suicide, fashionable entertainments.