Saturday, June 05, 2021

Frances Burney, Cecilia


Opening Passage: 

“Peace to the spirits of my honoured parents, respected be their remains, and immortalized their virtues! may time, while it moulders their frail relicks to dust, commit to tradition the record of their goodness; and Oh, may their orphan-descendant be influenced through life by the remembrance of their purity, and be solaced in death, that by her it was unsullied!” 

Such was the secret prayer with which the only survivor of the Beverley family quitted the abode of her youth, and residence of her forefathers; while tears of recollecting sorrow filled her eyes, and obstructed the last view of her native town which had excited them.

Summary: Cecilia satirizes a society obsessed with Money and Family Name, which are treated as more important than intelligence, virtue, noble title, or usefulness to society. Cecilia Beverley is a country heiress, although still a minor, who is destined for money, standing to inherit when she comes of age 10000 pounds in her own right and, from her uncle the Dean, an estate worth 3000 pounds a year. The Dean, however, has attached a requirement to his legacy: when she marries, Cecilia must keep the Beverley name and her husband must change his name to Beverley. The Dean also arranges for her to have three guardians and trustees: Mr. Harrel; Mr. Briggs; and Mr. Delvile. Mr. Harrel was chosen because he was the husband of an old friend of Cecilia; the Dean had not known him, but thought it would be good for Cecilia to be able to live among friends, and Mr. Harrel had money and was from a good family. Mr. Briggs was chosen for his money-acumen; having been in business his entire life, Mr. Briggs had amassed a large fortune himself and knew how best to cultivate Cecilia's funds until she came of age. Mr. Delvile is from an old family that could trace its roots back to the Anglo-Saxons, and was chosen on the idea that he would watch her with honor to prevent her from being in any way harmed. As it happens, the Dean's choices were singularly unfortunate. Mr. Harrel is a profligate spendthrift, Mr. Briggs is a miser who works on the principle that money is meant to be earned and rarely spent, and Mr. Delvile is so absorbed by family pride and self-importance that he has little room in his life for vigilance about anything else. Things are further complicated by an additional figure, Mr. Monckton, who in practice does more that you would expect a guardian to do than any of the three guardians, guiding Cecilia through various situations. But Mr. Monckton is not a disinterested friend; having married an old and ugly woman for money, he is unhappy in his marriage, and is already thinking ahead to the question of second wife, with Cecilia as the prime candidate. But this is going to be difficult; he has to try to maneuver things to keep a young, pretty, wealthy, amiable heiress single long enough for his wife to die.

Life with the Harrels in the city starts out pleasantly enough, although Cecilia quickly learns that her friend Mrs. Harrel has changed and that, in fact, they were probably mostly friends because they grew up in proximity to each other rather than from any personal affinity. The Harrels are involved in a never-ending string of parties, and are constantly making luxurious improvements to their house. As time goes on, though, it becomes clear that something is not quite right here. The parties are lavish to the point of exhausting and the improvements Mr. Harrel keeps making are well beyond what you would expect even given his family money. As it turns out, he is a gambler and highly in debt; he affords the improvements by doing everything on credit and never paying the poor workmen, but has so far managed to maintain his credit by the expedient of looking quite wealthy. And having the wealthy Cecilia stay with them has been a great boon: not only does he get paid 250 pounds a year for her room and board, her being there keeps up the appearances for his creditors. What is more, while staying with the Harrels, Cecilia finds herself constantly pestered by suitors who will not take No for answer, to her utter bafflement; but it turns out that Mr. Harrel is behind this, as well, using access to Cecilia as a sort of collateral on loans, and no matter how much she tries to put them off, he is encouraging them (which they believe easily because that's how they see women, as really expecting to be overcome by perseverance, and because it flatters their vanity).

I confess I had some difficulty getting through parts of the Mr. Harrel episodes. I have a temperamental revulsion to obvious emotional manipulation, and holy moly, is Mr. Harrel manipulative, and he doesn't bother to hide it. Despite the fact that Cecilia has good sense about the whole thing, he still manages to play on her good nature, and her sense of duty to her friend; since she finds she can't get any advance at all from Mr. Briggs despite its being her own money, she eventually through Mr. Harrel's manipulations finds herself in debt to the tune of almost her entire personal fortune, to be paid (with interest, of course) once she is of age. Inevitably, all of this is going to end in catastrophe, and catastrophe comes in a way that directly severs her link with Mr. Harrel. Mr. Monckton will take over her debt himself, so that she won't be hit so hard with the interest. This might sound generous, but it is less so when you consider that the debt is illegal. Not only did Mr. Harrel violate his responsibility as a trustee in setting it up, Cecilia is still a minor, and therefore cannot legally be bound by a loan contract. The reason Mr. Monckton takes over the debt rather than advise her to repudiate it is that it now puts her in debt to himself.

The story is far from over. Cecilia and the son of the Delviles, Mortimer, obviously are attracted to each other, but of course, do you think that it's going to end well that to marry her, the only son of the ancient family will have to change his name? A catastrophe can be expected there, as well.

The book, while it sold well and was highly regarded, was often criticized even by its fans for its ending. It's a happy ending, of sorts, but Burney deliberately avoids any hint that any of this greed and pride won't have a lasting effect. This world is a world of partial good and partial evil; our good fortune never entirely erases the bad fortune we must endure; and they are best served who put their trust in something other than the gods of Money and Name.

Favorite Passage:

“Let me but,” said Cecilia, looking gratefully at him, “be as secure from exciting as I am from feeling contempt, and what can I have to wish?”

“Good and excellent young lady!” said Dr Lyster, “the first of blessings indeed is yours in the temperance of your own mind. When you began your career in life, you appeared to us short-sighted mortals, to possess more than your share of the good things of this world; such a union of riches, beauty, independence, talents, education and virtue, seemed a monopoly to raise general envy and discontent; but mark with what scrupulous exactness the good and bad is ever balanced! You have had a thousand sorrows to which those who have looked up to you have been strangers, and for which not all the advantages you possess have been equivalent. There is evidently throughout this world, in things as well as persons, a levelling principle, at war with pre-eminence, and destructive of perfection.”

Recommendation: Highly Recommended; it's a very long work, but there's always something interesting happening. And while I didn't find her quite as delightful as Evelina, Cecilia is a quite charming heroine.