ENL 6236 – Eighteenth-Century Novel and Theory

Dr. Runge


Class 15 – Frances Burney, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, eds. Peter Sabor and Margaret Doody

                Vols. 5, pp. 715-941

Reception Paper:  Marie Hendry


With the conclusion of the novel, I would like to continue our discussion of its themes, but as in the case of Pamela and Joseph Andrews, I would also like to consider its reception and critical reputation as a novel. 



As usual, try to apply some of the theoretical distinctions from Watt, McKeon , Hunter, Warner and Perry to the novel as a whole. 

How does the resolution affect our understanding of the novel in terms of realism of presentation/ realism of assessment? 

How do we read the ideological significance of the novel in terms of Romance idealism-naïve empiricism-Extreme skepticism? Or Aristocratic ideology-Progressive ideology- and Conservative ideology? 

Does this novel fit the model of Warner’s elevation? 

Does it reinforce Perry’s thesis about the conjugal family?  How is the marriage contract constructed?  What is the narrative significance of the negotiation of the marriage? What is the ideological (political?) significance of the marriage negotiation?


Margaret Doody gives us a thumbnail sketch of the novel’s initial reception in her introduction (xi); she writes: “Rumours of its advent created long waiting lists at circulating libraries before the publication date of 12 July 1782.  The first edition sold out rapidly.  The book was discussed everywhere in London, and contemporaries generally recognized Cecilia as the most important novel to be published since Smollet’s last appearance with Humphry Clinker (1771).  The reviews were not only almost entirely favourable, but also unusually lengthy; Burney was accepted as a writer worthy of serious and attentive criticism” (xi). 


How do we reconcile the popularity of this novel with its relative obscurity within the eighteenth-century canon of novels (as demonstrated by the work of Watt, McKeon and Hunter)?


Among the comments published, Doody cites the praise of Cecilia’s characters “well drawn, and well supported” – “All of them seem fairly purchased at the great work-shop of life, and not the second-hand, vamped-up shreds and patches of the Monmouth-street of modern romance.”  The structural unity was admired – “This novel is planned with great judgment, and executed with great skill.”  Dr. Johnson told Mrs. Thrale, “the grand merit is in the general Power of the whole” (xi).


Evaluate this criticism.  How does eighteenth-century criticism of the novel differ from or inform your view of the work?  What are the merits of novel?  What are the limitations?  What are the specific literary features of the novel, or in other words, how do we know this is a novel?


In her DLB article, Doody argues that Cecilia is the most important novel between the last appearance of Sterne (Sentimental Journey) and the advent of Godwin and the romantic radicals.  She writes “Frances Burney’s reputation as a novelist has been bedeviled by the now traditional comparisons of her with Austen, but her influence on Austen should not lead us to believe her the same kind of novelist.  She was an enthusiastic student of Swift.  Her social vision and sense of the grotesque relate her strongly to Smollet as predecessor and Dickens as successor.  Burney did much, however, to promote women’s fiction – writing into an inescapable place in the history of British literature” (99).


How fair is the comparison between Austen and Burney?  Does this negate Burney’s value as a novelist?  Is there room for only one female novelist in the “eighteenth-century” canon?


Julia Epstein notes, somewhat ambiguously, that Burney’s art has recently been evaluated in terms of its contribution to social history – the birth of individualism and the modern concept of the self.  Additionally she has been seen as important in the “constitution and origins of a specifically female subjectivity during the eighteenth century” (209).  To what extent does Cecilia fulfill this expectation?  How significant is this?





In the end what does the novel say about charity?  What happens to Cecilia’s dream of a charitable dynasty?  How do we evaluate Albany in the end?


What does the conclusion suggest about social mobility and the theme of internal worth outweighing external value?  How does this relate to the narrative of Belfield?  How does this relate to Cecilia?


In the final assessment, is Cecilia a conduct-book heroine?  To what extent can we call this a conduct-book novel?  See in particular the discussion of feminine propriety in the Delvile home in the final chapter (between Lady Honoria, Mr. Compton Delvile and Cecilia among others).


What is the relationship between this conduct-book standard and madness in the novel?  What is madness?  To what extent are Albany and Cecilia both mad?  What precipitates C’s madness in the end?


Let us return to Epstein’s observation that Cecilia’s pursuit of Delvile in London serves as a test of her marriageability.  What does it mean that she becomes insane and then insensible?


How does the novel depict dueling?  What impact does this have on the construction of masculine honor in the novel?  Compare this with Pamela and Joseph Andrews.


The ending:


Doody suggests that contemporary reviews found the ending of Cecilia problematic (review page xxxvii).  Why?  What “should” a novel do? 


Recall our discussion of mixed characters.  Doody argues that this novel produces a mixed character (Mrs. Delvile) and also a mixed ending.  How does this differ from other novels we have read? 


To what extent does satire affect the ending?  What is the purpose of satire?  Is this at odds with the “purpose” of the novel?  


Epstein suggests that Burney’s heroines progress through a cycle of social transition from separation to margin to reaggregation.  They are reintegrated into the social hierarchy when they respectably marry:  “whether they also achieve personal happiness through this reintegration into society remains ambiguous” (200).


In terms of the happiness of the heroine, how does Cecilia conclude?  At what cost does Cecilia marry?  What benefits are gained by marriage?  What lies in the balance?


Return to questions raised by Perry.  Does this novel represent a contest between romantic love and mercenary interest?  Is it then also a contest between consanguineal kin and conjugal kin?  Does romantic love serve to offset the limited power the wife exerts in the conjugal unit?