A beautiful and virtuous young heiress has less than a year to go until she comes of age is leaving the country to live in London with Mr Harrell one of her three guardians. Her late uncle has appointed has appointed Mr Harrell, the husband of her childhood friend, Mr Briggs, an eccentric and off-putting miser and Mr Delvile, a gentleman from an old family who is absurdly proud. Cecilia soon realises that she is in an unfortunate position as her childhood friend and her husband lead a shallow extravagant social whirl of a life. Cecilia pines for rational conversation and true affection and learns the human cost of the Harrells’ extravagance: honest workmen and their families are suffering because the Harrells refuse to pay what is due to them. Cecilia feels that the relief of the poor is the true purpose of her great wealth. She is emotionally blackmailed into lending the Harrells large sums of money but regrets wasting money on such a hopeless cause. She hopes to escape from the Harrells but is hindered by the defects of her other two options.
Mr Delvile comes out ahead of Mr Briggs as his wife and son tip the balance. Cecilia feels greatly drawn to Mrs Delvile who shares her husband’s unreasonable family pride but apart from this important flaw has a high moral and intellectual tone. Cecilia and the young Mortimer Delvile are drawn to one another but their attraction is blocked first by a series of irritating circumstances which make it appear as though Cecilia’s affections are already engaged, then by the family pride. Cecilia’s ancestry is only vaguely adequate but the real obstacle is a clause in her uncle’s will that if she marries she will lose her fortune if her husband doesn’t take her name. I was put off reading this novel for years because I knew this was the major plot point and how it turned out. I dislike Obstacle Fiction in general where everything goes wrong and I found the idea of having to take this obstacle seriously too annoying. In the event, this potential name change isn’t represented as a serious, gendered obstacle, really. The book treats the clause as a pretty normal thing in the circumstances and makes it clear that for most people it would not be an obstacle; it’s just that this one guy’s family are weirdos.
Mortimer struggles with the family pride name issue before telling Cecilia that he loves her so much that it doesn’t matter to him, in a scene that is very similar to Mr Darcy’s first proposal but less stiff-necked. His parents, however, are not budging. Cecilia never accepts the validity of their position but, being so virtuous, she naturally takes filial obedience very seriously, as well as feeling too much pride herself to push in somewhere she isn’t wanted. The conflict between duty and inclination is painful for Cecilia but it is never in question which she will choose. The problem is that because duty in this case is defined solely by other people’s feelings her knowledge of her duty fluctuates frustratingly out of her control.
The conflict is made more painful because Cecilia is invested in her relationship with Mrs Delvile as well as with Mortimer. Mrs Delvile is painfully torn between her great affection for Cecilia and her adamant, unquestionable conviction that Mortimer must not change his name. Cecilia is only able to maintain her affection for Mrs Delvile because, being so virtuous and forgiving, she is willing to occupy her point of view and see that her feelings are real to her and that, feeling as she does, she ought to stick to her guns. There is a constant interchange of painful forgiveness and overlooking causes of resentment between — well, I was going to say Cecilia and Mrs Delvile, but really between them and Mortimer as a group of three and between Cecilia and Mortimer as well. This is also the case with Cecilia’s friend Henrietta who has a crush on Mortimer. Characters’ interests conflict, even where there is the highest level of affection and sympathy.
One of the things that I wondered about most while reading the novel was the degree to which features only work because of the novel’s specific moment in time. The language is one of these features.
This is how the characters speak in moments of high drama (which are a lot of moments):
“No, we will not part!” cried Delvile, with increasing vehemence; “if you force me, madam, from her, you will drive me to distraction! What is there in this world that can offer me a recompense? And what can pride even to the proudest afford as an equivalent? Her perfections you acknowledge, her greatness of mind is like your own; she has generously given me her heart, — Oh sacred and fascinating charge! Shall I, after such a deposite, consent to an eternal separation? Repeal, repeal your sentence, my Cecilia! let us live to ourselves and our consciences, and leave the vain prejudices of the world to those who can be paid by them for the loss of all besides!”
“Is this conflict, then,” said Mrs Delvile, “to last forever? Oh, end it, Mortimer, finish it and make me happy! she is just, and will forgive you, she is noble-minded, and will honour you. Fly, then, at this critical moment, for in flight alone is your safety; and then will your father see the son of his hopes, and then shall the fond blessings of your idolizing mother soothe all your affliction, and soften all your regret!”
“Oh madam!” cried Delvile, “for mercy, for humanity, forbear this cruel supplication!”
“Nay, more than supplication, you have my commands; commands you have never yet disputed, and misery, ten-fold misery, will follow their disobedience. Hear me, Mortimer, for I speak prophetically; I know your heart, I know it to be formed for rectitude and duty, or destined by their neglect to repentance and horror.”
It occurred to me that we’re kind of used to hearing Elizabethan/Jacobean non-naturalistic literary language, but the eighteenth-century equivalent doesn’t get aired in the same way, and I’d be interested to hear actors make this kind of thing sound natural. This kind of dialogue always makes me think of musicals; characters open their mouths and express themselves in this performative “pretend this is how the world is” kind of way. Novels of this period get away with this high-flown stuff without having to make it a whole “I’m doing a thing” thing — or being just plain bad, of course.
I was also struck with the character of Cecilia. While the concept of her character is very simple — she’s perfectly balanced and right about everything apart from sometimes being just too generous — there were aspects that didn’t feel so familiar as I might have expected. What really struck me about Cecilia was that her great instinct for goodness is rooted in her need to respect herself. This is explicitly stated many times. When she feels unsure she has made the right decision she decides she needs to recover her self-esteem as her first priority. I’m not actually sure I’ve ever seen self-worth uncritically presented as the primary, central motivation for goodness. I can certainly imagine some Victorian novelists presenting this strain of thought critically or at least ambivalently as self-sufficient, in the disapproving Victorian inflection of the word. And Cecilia is self-sufficient; she has no one she can look to for ethical guidance. The influence that has most impact on her is the Delviles’ disproval of her marrying Mortimer and while she submits to this she never respects it, never regards it as anything other than an unfortunate foible. She has no one in her life who matches her in both principles and capability. Mortimer is a worthy young man, of course, but she can’t rely on him to make decisions about their potential marriage that will allow her to keep her own good opinion. She is not completely correct in all her decisions and perceptions, as she is both young and faced with a lot of tough choices, but she comes very near perfection in her serious, sensible but liberal and sympathetic way. She has the greatest delicacy and rectitude and sometimes faints with sensibility and is therefore irreproachably good and feminine but that emphasis on her sense and judgement and risk-aversion means that she could come across as dull or stolid, because she doesn’t strike either a sweet, mellifluous damsel note, or a more challenging, strident note of principled, intelligent woman at odds with the ethics of her environment — even though that is what she <i>is.</i> I think Burney avoids making Cecilia a prig but I’m not quite sure how. I do wonder if it has something to do with her being able to play her straighter, without it that choice making her a writer who doesn’t understand when something is too clichéd to be used so straight and also well. As it is, Burney does undercut some of her high drama and high tone with farce and sly commentary, though not as often as Austen does.
The novel is pessimistic about the world and the possibility of solutions to its sufferings and problems. Cecilia is better than the rest of it but she must compromise with it, not reform it or defeat it or exist in supreme isolation.