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

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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

Further Reading, Part II

Whose Jane Austen?

It’s a question I’ve often asked myself while researching and writing The Jane Austen Project, but never more insistently than when considering the works that make up the short story anthology “Jane Austen Made Me Do It, Original Stories Inspired by Literature’s Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart.” I use the subtitle advisedly, for this is one way of viewing Jane Austen, and perhaps a message from its editor, Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose, of how she, at least, does.

JAMMDI is on one hand a brilliant marketing idea, combining the brand recognition of Jane Austen with some of the biggest names in Austen and Austenesque fan fiction. But ideally it is more than that, being also an effort to wrestle with the question of what Jane Austen means to people living today, nearly 200 years after her death. Continue reading

Fanny Burney, Jane Austen and Rational Creatures Speaking Truth From the Heart

 

Right now I am nearly done reading Camilla by Fanny Burney, and what a crazy mess that is.  Better than Evelina, in the sense of being more richly crowded with people and incident, a more fully realized work. It looks forward to the overstuffed  Victorian novels of Dickens and Eliot, in its sentimentality and its extremes. But it also shows the stamp of earlier 18th-century ones, in its sweeping authorial asides and moral lessons. Still, the sense that strikes me most strongly reading this book is what a raw deal women got in this world, and how the author hardly seems to remark on this, as if it is something too obvious to require comment.

And this makes me think, again, of Jane Austen — as so many things do.

The plot of Camilla, if I dare to describe such a thing, centers on the title character, a girl of 17 when the main action of the plot begins. She is one of three daughters in what is presented as a nearly perfect family: a kind, intelligent clergyman father, a mother who is even more intelligent and respected (though who is for most of the action of the story on urgent business on the Continent, thus depriving Camilla of her counsel when it is most needed). Camilla is all unaffected goodness and generosity, though with an impulsiveness that leads her into trouble. Since childhood she has loved, and been adored by, the rich and handsome boy next door (next estate, actually)  an equally kind but more rigidly righteous person with the improbable name of Edgar Mandlebert (Burney has a weakness for crazy names.) Through a series of absurd misunderstandings that could have been cleared up in a single honest conversation, which they somehow seem never able to have, they become ever more estranged, as Camilla embarks on a round of pleasure outings in Tunbridge Wells, Southhampton and London that bring her decreasing pleasure, and an officious hanger-on with the unlikely name of Mrs. Mittin leads her unwittingly deep into debt.

The novel is fascinating  in how it puts money front and center. Camilla’s debt problems stem not from her own extravagance (she enjoys giving money to the poor much more than spending it on herself) than from the mischief of her brother, Lionel, the scapegrace black sheep, who without being actually evil, brings enormous misery to his family by a whole range of 18th-century bad-boy behavior: he gambles, hunts obsessively, has an affair with a married woman, refuses to settle on a career,  accumulates large debts and playfully extorts money from the uncle he expects to be the heir of,  expressing no remorse for any of this until it is too late. It is his borrowing all the money Camilla had been given for her outing to Tunbridge Wells that first sets her on the path to debt and disgrace, as seemingly small missteps lead to huge problems.

We learn along the way about how the mere rumor of future wealth assures shopkeepers will grant one credit on easy terms (Mrs. Mittin, informed by a friend, who was lied to by Lionel, spreads the false report that Camilla is to inherit the fortune of her uncle Sir Hugh, a baronet). When the rumor turns out to be untrue, the vultures start circling and we learn  about money-lenders (usury is illegal but popular) and debtors’ prison, where Camilla’s father briefly lands before he is bailed out by his friends.

In addition, much of the plot is driven by Sir Hugh’s decision to settle his fortune on the brilliant, classically educated, generous and hopelessly innocent Eugenia, Camilla’s youngest sister, who is lame and smallpox-scarred through a set of childhood mishaps that Sir Hugh blames on himself. Meanwhile, Lynnmere, a cousin of Camilla’s and even more worthless than Lionel, assumes he is the heir and racks up debt accordingly.  And poor saintly Eugenia is constantly at the risk of being kidnapped and forced into marriage for her money.

Men behave much worse, but women’s behavior is held to a much higher standard and thus they are often found guilty of impropriety for seemingly minor offenses. This is the lesson Camilla learns the hard way.

Women, in general, are presented as being at the mercy of capricious, money-hungry and sometimes violent men, subject to insult in public places when not properly chaperoned (a theme explored in much more detail in Evelina). Assumed to be coquettes until proven otherwise. Worse, they are allowed to express nothing. Even if they like a man, they are not supposed to reveal this preference openly; they have to wait demurely and hope the man they like picks them. If chosen by a man they do not like, their rejection runs the risk of being seen as maidenly reserve or just another species of coquettery. It is this set of assumptions Jane Austen plays off brilliantly in Pride and Prejudice in the proposal scene with Mr. Collins, when that clergyman refuses to take no for an answer:

“As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”

This remark provokes Elizabeth to make a reply that is astonishing, not by her own standards, but by those of female behavior in novels of the era:

“I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honor you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer ? Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart.”

This series of frank, concise declarations adds up to a speech Camilla could never have made, nor Clarissa, nor Evelina, nor Sophie in Tom Jones. The idea that a  young woman could be “a rational creature speaking truth from her heart,” who could, without even the thought of consulting her parents, reject an offer of marriage so quickly and decisively, is deeply, yet quietly radical by the standards of the day.

We cheer it now, but we do not fully understand this; the idea that Elizabeth Bennet should have a mind of her own and use it does not amaze us. As her detractors have often observed, Jane Austen never created anything close to a proto-feminist hero; she shows suspicion of women who spend too much reading books or mastering an instrument, and no one ever makes a speech about the rights of women. But her radicalism is right under our noses, in its quiet insistence of women having feelings and thoughts that are as valid and important as those of men, and the words in which to clothe them.


Reading Material

I am extremely excited about this.  Thanks, AustenBlog, for the reminder! I wish I had time to read the whole issue right now, instead I shall link to it so I can easily find it again.

Persuasions, from what I have see of it before, is a fascinating examination of some of the most arcane Jane Austen topics imaginable (a great article about handwriting and writing materials proved immensely useful). It is intelligent without being academic and pretentious, a rare combination. At least in America.

Right now, in a little metafictional excursion,  I am reading By a Lady, by Amanda Elyot, a novel about time travel and Jane Austen.(!) This was quite harshly criticized by many Amazon readers, too harshly, I think.  I never pass final judgment on any book before finishing it, but I am finding it amusing, though more  Fanny Burney than Jane Austen. Picaresque and wacky, it is more fun to read than a lot of the Austen fan fiction out there.  Miss Elyot has done her research, though her exposition of it is sometimes clunky, not seamlessly integrated as you see, for instance, in the work of Tracy Chevalier.

The biggest problem I see is an unevenness of tone. That is so important, so hard to describe and so easy to get wrong.

Update and spoiler alert: There are two chapters in rapid succession devoted to steamy sex scenes! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I  have noticed that some readers hate sex scenes when they weren’t expecting them (and if they were expecting them, presumably would not read the book). One reviewer praised “Jane Austen Ruined My Life” precisely because it did not contain sex scenes, which to my mind seems a bit odd. I have nothing against them, per se, but it does seem to push willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point to suppose that the heroine of the book would have unprotected (as well as mind-blowingly excellent) sex with the earl she had only recently met and become engaged (if somewhat informally) to. It just seems to pose too many practical problems, from birth control to chaperonage to spying servants. Also, she just happens to walk through a door in Bath and find herself in an elaborate sex club out of “Eyes Wide Shut”? Dens of vice were far from unknown in England of the time, but I would expect the door to be better policed.

This makes me realize: a narrative can contain many unrealistic elements but must somehow follow the rules it sets for itself. What those rules actually are becomes obvious only after the fact, when they are broken.  To take an example of a famous and unrealistic story — Alice in Wonderland. Alice falls down a rabbit hole and has a series of strange adventures involving talking animals, changes in her own body size, a baby that changes into a pig, a croquet game involving live animals, etc. What is the constant in all of this is Alice’s own response to: baffled, yet unfailingly polite by her own standards of politeness. She is the glue that holds all this together, along with Lewis Carroll’s deadpan tone.

Along with the sex, Miss Elyot brings Jane Austen onstage. She solves the problem of what Jane Austen was like by putting into her mouth words that she actually wrote: choice epigrams lifted straight from the novels and letters. This is kind of funny; it turns Jane Austen into a sort of Regency-era Oscar Wilde, or a  Groucho Marx, perhaps a better analogy, because part of the charm of  Groucho is that no one ever seems to react as if he were saying anything odd. Similarly, Jane Austen makes one snarky remark after another, sotto voce, to the heroine she has just met, and her wit goes unremarked and unappreciated  (except by her cousin  the earl (!) the one who also happens to be having mind-blowingly excellent sex with the heroine). How handy!

I guess that is the other major weakness with this book, which for all I am criticizing I also am kind of enjoying, if only out of a sense of fellowship. It takes the parts of 1801 that it wants and ignores the parts that don’t suit it. And I see, perhaps more than most readers, just how hard that is not to do.