Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book Review: France Burney's Cecilia

I'm Frances Burney, bitch.

Cecilia, or Memoirs of An Heiress
by Frances Burney
Originally published 1782
This edition, Oxford's World Classics, 2009

Book Review: Evelina by Frances Burney (CAT DIRT SEZ)

     France Burney was a (lady) 18th century novelist, primarily known today for being a direct influence on Jane Austen.  For example, Jane Austen took the title for her 1813 best seller "Pride and Prejudice" directly from Cecilia, where the phrase appears, for the first time, at the resolution of this book.

    The story behind Cecilia is that after Burney scored a hit with her first novel, Evelina, she wrote a play called "The Witlings" but was forbidden(!) from pursuing it by her father. So instead of putting on the play, she wrote Cecilia.  I'm not sure why Cecilia is 950 pages long- it was originally published in a set of five volumes, but it is hard to talk about Cecilia without dwelling on that fact.  950 pages.

   I suppose, were you to compare Burney's Cecilia with novels by authors like Dickens or Pynchon you might say "Why not 950 pages?"  However, Cecilia is not some sprawling epic that takes in disparate location,. multiple characters and several points of view.  Cecilia is a novel about two people who want to get married but are prevented from doing so.

   That one sentence plot description actually describes a fair minority of books contained in the canon of literature.  It contains a majority of classic books from the first half of the 19th century.   Burney bears responsibility for that in the same way that Captain Beefheart is responsible for a generation of crappy experimental rock music.  It's worth asking why Evelina and Cecilia were so successful, and how France Burney inspired her followers to write the most successful, enduring novels of all time.

  To answer the question of why Burney was so successful, you need to start with the audience.  First of all, there was an audience.  People bought these books, and read them, and loved them.  When Cecilia was written, this was an audience that could fairly be described as "hungry" for material.  We know they were hungry for material because they had the time and patience to read 950 page books.

  I imagine that this reading culture had many of the characteristics that we associate with contemporary sub-cultures.  I.e. they communicated with one another, they shared a common taste, had an antagonistic relationship with the dominant culture, common socio-economic background, etc.  It's a culture that would have emerged AFTER the larger market for the novel was already established.  Beginning in the early 18th century, there was an audience for the novel, dominated by authors who were already working writers and the sort of gifted amateurs/poly maths typified by Goethe and Schiller in Germany.

    The young women's reading sub culture would have began by reading books about them written by these men.  By the mid 18th century, women began to write novels, and these women readers would have begun to realize that there was a possibility for members of the sub culture to write about themselves.  Burney was the first of these, so pre-mature that her socio-economic background places her more in league with the working writer authors of the early 18th century novel then the young women writers of the 19th century novel.

   This relationship between audience and author, would, in the early 19th century, produce the most successful, enduring novels of all time.  In Cecilia, Burney develops many of the components of these plots to an epic, dickensian degree.

   Cecilia is a wealthy heiress whose inheritance is predicated on the requirement that her husband take her last name.  At the start of the book, she is 17ish, and her care is given to three guardians: the profligate Mr. Harrell, husband of her childhood friend;  Mr. Briggs, a "money man" who cares nothing for society; and Mr. Devile, an officious aristocrat who care more about the "continuance of his line" then anything else.  Mr. Devile of course, has a son, Mortimer who happens to be the same age as Cecilia.  However, Mortimer is 'the last of his line' so there is NO FUCKING WAY that he will marry an heiress whose husband is required to take her last name.  Basically it's that, for 900 pages.

   Superlative over the first 500 pages, which describe the slow suicide of Mr. Harrell at the hands of his spendthrift life style, Cecilia becomes catatonic when Burney leaves London for the quiet of the country side. Burney is out of her element in the country, and she isn't particularly convincing at depicting the emotional interior of Cecilia herself.  The second half of the book is almost wholly concerned with the marriage plot,  and it's easy to see how the whole package was such a hit.  Burney is clearly concerned with larger themes then "will they or won't they" marriage details, and that likely won her respect with the contemporary critical community, while the marriage plot made her a hit with the womens reading sub culture.

   But for contemporary readers, Cecilia is a non-starter.  You'd want to stick with Evelina and move on, that's my advice.

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