I recently finished the first book of Fanny Burney’s three volume novel Cecilia. As Burney is an author who supposedly influenced Jane Austen, I was curious to compare her work with that of Austen, and I particularly wanted to read Cecilia because the title for Pride and Prejudice supposedly comes from a speech one of the characters gives at the end of the novel. However, I was reduced to skimming the last two books due to their interminable agony, and I cannot recommend the book, save for those who want to appreciate Jane Austen so much more by comparing her with her predecessors.
Published in 1782, Cecilia predates any of Austen’s works by at least five years (she was about seven when it was first published) and thus predates Austen’s first published work, Sense and Sensibility, by almost thirty years. However, I found similarities everywhere. Cecilia herself is a bit like Elizabeth Bennett with the wealth and significance of Emma (but far richer), and Miss Larolles (a voluble young lady) reminded me of Mrs. Bennett. Mr. Monckton, Cecilia’s long-standing friend, has a role similar to Mr. Knightley, dispensing wisdom and advice to the young, orphaned woman. However, he gives his advice, not as a disinterested friend, but as a man who hopes one day to marry Cecilia after his own wife dies. As such, the advice is self-interested and it quickly becomes repetitive, like Miss Larolles’ conversation. All of this makes one appreciate the masterful hand Austen brings to similar characters.
I found Cecilia to be inconsistent; one moment, she was quick-witted like Elizabeth Bennett, the next she was confused and flustered like Fanny Price. The plot was what frustrated me the most, though. Cecilia goes through one trial after the other, kept from her true love, not by any action of his (at least, not until the final book), but by a score of other things—guardians, misunderstandings, pride, prejudice, his family, the wishes of her family as found in the injunction upon her inheritance, duels, and other suitors, just to name those that come to mind. Meanwhile, she endures all manner of suffering upon her innocence and purity, her generosity and kind nature being manipulated at every turn even as it is solicited by the true, worthy poor and by a somewhat preachy advocate of the poor.
Unlike Jane Austen’s works, where our interest is spread about to include other members of the cast, the focus of Cecilia is primarily on her and on the subjects of her benevolence. She is surrounded by such a cast of odious or caricatured individuals, I found it hard to like them, whereas I can even find Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Norris amusing at times. The overflowing volubility of the characters made me long for the simplicity of Austen’s works, and the experience overall made me eager to read her works again, seeing them with fresh eyes after such an encounter.
For instance, I was once frustrated that when Mr. Darcy is finally given his second chance with Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, we don’t get to hear what words she says in reply, and the conversation becomes very limited for a while. After reading Cecilia, though, I’m delighted by the silence, especially when I compare it to the paragraphs and paragraphs Cecilia’s husband unleashes when he is finally granted his second chance through her goodness. When Darcy has his raptures, we feel them, we experience them…but we don’t have to read them, and I think they are that much more real to us because they aren’t declared forth like an actor of old, swelled by the footlights until brevity is no longer the soul of wit.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren