Where is Frances Burney? Irony, Free Indirect Discourse, and the Cultural Critic in Cecilia

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Department of Humanities


While recent studies often praise Frances Burney’s novels for their irreverent social criticism, many see Burney’s second novel Cecilia as a more perplexing work. Although its eponymous protagonist seems to embody Burney’s intellectual and moral independence, Burney submits Cecilia to humiliation and dispossession, leading some critics to view the novel as ambiguous or flawed. Such readings mistakenly assume that Cecilia really is the model of independence and sensibility that she takes herself to be. Instead of simply depicting her protagonist as a moral paragon, Burney uses irony and free indirect discourse to layer seeming praise for Cecilia with subtle critiques of Cecilia’s cultural escapism. The novel’s narration reveals Cecilia’s affection for sentimental literature, philanthropy, and music to be ironically paradoxical, as it is often tainted by the very consumerism and artifice that sentimentality was supposed to avoid. Simultaneously, Burney’s narrative techniques allow readers to engage the novel with a level of critical reflection that Cecilia often lacks. Cecilia marks the beginning of Burney’s move away from sentimental tropes and toward more modern techniques of engaging readers and eliciting their responses.

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Women's Writing