Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I've been interested in Fanny Burney as an author since last semester at school, mainly because she's cited as being such a big influence on Jane Austen. I did a couple of big projects on her and now I feel like I know her life and her works pretty well. I read Evelina and loved it! Her other big three novels are Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer. I've particularly wanted to read Cecilia and Camilla for a while, because Jane Austen writes about them in Northanger Abbey, using Catherine Morland to give a little speech on how novels were received at the time:

‘And what are you reading, Miss — ?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. ‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.

So, now that I've read Cecilia, do I agree with Ms. Austen? I don't know...

It's not a bad book... for the first 500 pages or so. I really loved Evelina, but Evelina is also much shorter than Cecilia (about 500 pages shorter). Cecilia is 940 pages. Even Fanny Burney thought it was too long, but she was under pressure to release it and didn't have time to edit it as much as she wanted. Also, during the Regency era melodramatic literature was considered the best. While Evelina has some crying and fainting, it's minimal. Cecilia takes it to the extreme. I enjoyed the beginning of the story, but eventually it became too much for me. Cecilia is about a young and beautiful heiress who can only retain her fortune if her husband takes her maiden name as his own. The premise is interesting, but I quickly grew irritated with all the overly dramatic plot points. Fainting, screaming, crying, suicide, dueling, death, loss of fortune, and it goes on and on and on.

I can see now why Fanny Burney no longer resonates with modern audiences like Austen does. Austen pares down her stories to universally understandable situations and people. Burney, on the other hand, loads down her books with details and situations that are specific to her time period. That doesn't bother me too much because I've studied the period, but I don't really relate to these novels like I relate to something by Austen.

At the same time, I have serious respect for Fanny Burney. She had a knack for capturing each of her characters' individual voices and a knack for writing dialogue like she was writing a screenplay. She also had a serious gift with language and was good friends with Samuel Johnson (author of the first English dictionary), and my dear friend, the Oxford English Dictionary, cites Fanny Burney's novels often as the first use of many words and phrases we use today. And, there's no denying that, as Cecilia and Camilla are often cited as some of Austen's favorite novels, Cecilia influenced Austen. There are obvious parallels between Mortimer Delvile (proud, rich young man from arrogant family) and Mr. Darcy. And then there's the fact that most scholars agree the title Pride and Prejudice comes from a line at the end of Cecilia:

"Remember: if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination." (It really reads like that in the book too, with the bolded capital letters.)

So, to conclude this rather long book post, I'll just say that as an Austen/Burney nerd I found Cecilia worth reading, if not thoroughly enjoyable like Evelina.

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