Cecilia: Introduction

Waming Up to Cecilia

Date: Sun, 31 May 1998
Reply-To: Jane Austen List
From: "Jill L. Spriggs"
Subject: Warming up to Cecilia

I do not usually read introductions until after I have read the book, to avoid "spoilers". Since I have already read Cecilia, I had no such compunctions. Margaret Doody wrote an introduction I really enjoyed, especially the background to the writing of Cecilia which, since it involves no spoilers, I will share here. Frances Burney wrote Evelina in secrecy, probably fearing the disapprobation of her stepmother, who spurred Frances to burn all her writing on her fifteenth birthday, including the novel she had written about Caroline, the mother of Evelina. The novel was published surreptitiously, and Frances' father was not informed until several months later, when its success was assured. Charles Burney was thrilled by his daughter's new found fame, and began including her in his intellectually inclined circle, which included Dr. Samuel Johnson. Dr. Johnson was taken with Frances, and began teaching her Latin, until her father stopped the lessons (probably fearing the influence of another male father figure).

The powerful men of the theatrical world, Arthur Murphy and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, seeing the dramatic potential of the writer of Evelina, urged Frances to write a play. For almost a year Frances worked on the play, with a heroine named Cecilia, and after she completed the first draft, it was presented to her family at the home of an old family friend, " ' Daddy' Samuel Crisp". The family apparently enjoyed the play; Frances was informed as much by her younger sister Susanna. Frances must have been shocked as well as hurt when she received a scathing letter from Mr. Crisp and Dr. Burney "forbidding her ever to think of having the play put on." The heat of the reaction puzzles me, and the decision not even to submit it to a more knowledgeable judge like Arthur Murphy or Richard Sheridan, is almost incredible. Dr. Burney redirected his daughter to fiction writing, saying, "In the Novel way, there is no danger." A common theme in Burney's novels is the heroine under subjugation to males, and it makes me wonder how much of this is due to her own relationship with her father. He pushed her to hasten her publication of her second novel, viewing her desire for further editing and cutting unnecessary. Men seemed to view Frances as some form of performing monkey; Samuel Crisp's comment about Frances' second novel was "If she can coin gold at such a rate, as to sit by a warm Fire, and in 3 or 4 months ... gain 250 pounds by scribbling the Inventions of her own Brain - only putting down ... whatever comes into her own head ... she need not want money." It was almost as if they looked at Frances as Lady Louisa's Welsh speaking parrot, or as Margaret Doody suggested, Frances' " ... magical gift of spinning straw into gold like the fairy tale girl." (OUP, p. xiv) Poor Frances, it would be many years before she could find a man not interested in using her for his own purposes. And interesting that Cecilia would be a novel about " ... hopes, ambitions, and even genius (particular but not only female) deflected and thwarted." (Doody, again, OUP, p. xv).

It's going to be good!

Jill Spriggs

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated 9 January 2003