Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (Frances Burney)

Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress is the second novel by Frances Burney (aka Fanny Burney).
Finished on: 16.5.2022

Content Note: suicide

Cecilia grew up rather sheltered with her uncle, the Dean. But he died shortly before she came of age, he died, leaving her in the care of three guardians until she could take care of her own affairs and notably, quite a substantial inheritance. This inheritance hinges on the fact that Cecilia marry a man who will take her name instead of the other way round. The Dean chose her guardians with different things in mind: Mr. Harrel, who married Cecilia’s childhood friend Priscilla, is supposed to be her social net. Mr. Briggs is a self-made man supposed to take care of Cecilia’s money. And Mr. Delvile comes from a very old family and is supposed to give Cecilia access to important connections. Saying good-bye to her fatherly friend Mr. Monckton, Cecilia makes her way to London to stay with the Harrels. But she will soon find out that life as an heiress with three guardians is far from simple.

Cecilia is a rather massive novel and it’s a little more ambiguous than I expected, which might make it a little less accessible than Evelina, but it is an excellent novel: insightful characterizations and satire, as well as criticism of the life of privileged society.

The book cover showing a painting of a 18th century woman in a fancy blue dress.

I still don’t understand why nobody has ever adapted Evelina or Cecilia into a film (or a mini-series). I mean, people looking for something like Austen would do well to turn to Burney who was a huge influence on her (Pride and Prejudice, by the way, is named after a quote from Cecilia). And instead of the 100th Austen adaptation (not that I don’t like a lot of them), people could just adapt this. That being said, Burney is not as light as Austen.

Anyway, Burney has an excellent eye for characters and can be very funny in her satirizing of them and the things they represent. Burney is certainly not impressed with the high society and pretty much everybody gets their fair share of criticism here. That some of the characters are really quite annoying makes some of the scenes a little exhausting, I have to admit, but it is rather effective in putting us into Cecilia’s shoes. The wry narrator adds a lot to this as well.

But this is not strictly a comedic novel, even if a lot of it is funny. In fact, in the introduction posits that Cecilia is the first novel to introduce “mixed characters”, in the sense of morally ambiguous, not clearly good or bad. While I don’t know if you can really say that this is the first novel to have this kind of characters, it is not just the characters that are mixed, the story itself is, too. On the face of it, it is a romance with the necessary happy end. But there is a melancholy undercurrent to it all. Maybe it’s a pyrrhic victory in the end. It’s certainly not the kind of happy end where our heroine is left without scars.

I was definitely invested in the story and for a minute there, I really believed that there was no way out for Cecilia and the man of her dreams. And, as has probably become obvious by now, there is no clean way out of the partiarchal net Cecilia is caught in.

Beautifully written and well-observed, it really is no surprise that Cecilia was a great success when it came out. That barely anyone talks about Burney anymore, that’s a shame though. I for one, am looking forward to reading Burney’s other work.

Summarizing: excellent stuff.

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