Fanny Burney’s ‘Cecilia’: Blame It on Pride (and Prejudice)

I’ve just finished this, Fanny Burney’s second novel, published 1782. It hurt like a toothache the whole time I was reading, yet I feel strangely bereft now that I am done.

People who complain that “Pride & Prejudice” lacks passion, a large group that includes not only Charlotte Bronte but also, apparently, the authors of “Pride & Promiscuity,” “Pride and Prejudice: The Wanton Edition” and “Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife,” should try reading “Cecilia.” Compared to it, “Pride & Prejudice,” with Darcy’s “fine, tall person, handsome features and noble mien” as well as Elizabeth’s “light and pleasing” figure and “fine eyes,” is like “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.”

But, really, anyone who likes “Pride & Prejudice,” a far larger group, should consider reading this work.  There are weird echoes of “Cecilia” all over “P&P,” not least the very title, an allusion to a comment late in “Cecilia” that everything that went wrong between the lovers could be attributed to the twin woes of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. (As is well known, P&P’s original title, “First Impressions,” had already been used by the time Jane Austen got around to finding a publisher in 1813.) “P&P,” like “Cecilia,” owes a debt to Samuel Johnson in its magnificent sentence structures, and explores how misunderstandings and status differences can thwart mutual attraction.

Unusually for a woman of the 18th century, Cecilia is wealthy in her own right, with (as we learn early on) £10,000 free and clear  from her parents and an estate from an uncle that assures her an additional yearly income of £3,000. She is also beautiful, kind and intelligent. And  an orphan! Continue reading