...There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them...."And what are you reading. Miss ——?" "Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.— "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;" or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.Two of the three books extolled in this passage were written by Frances Burney, known to family, friends, and the general public as Fanny.* Fanny Burney's books were not only admired by Austen, but clearly had a strong influence on Austen's own writing. Even the praise of novels quoted above may be modelled on a passage in Burney's Cecilia (1782):
—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Ch. V
The next morning, Cecilia took care to fill up her time more advantageously...: she got together her books, arranged them to her fancy, and secured to herself, for the future occupation of her leisure hours, the exhaustless fund of entertainment which reading, that richest, highest, and noblest source of intellectual enjoyment, perpetually affords.Like Austen, in her teens and early twenties Fanny Burney wrote for the amusement of herself and her sisters and brothers. Her first published novel, Evelina, became an overnight sensation when it was issued anonymously in 1778. Written as a series of letters exchanged mainly between the heroine and the man she considers to be her father, the Rev. Arthur Villars, Evelina recounts the experiences of a naïve young woman as she enters the social world of London and its satellite resort towns. Over the course of the novel Evelina repeatedly finds herself placed in awkward, embarrassing, and even perilous situations by aggressive and importunate men. Their actions expose her not only to feelings of chagrin, but to social disgrace.
—Fanny Burney, Cecilia, Bk. I, Ch. IV
This is also the situation of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Austen's Northanger Abbey (written in 1798-99, revised in 1817, and published posthumously in 1818). While being introduced to the world of balls and assemblies in the fashionable resort of Bath, the young Catherine becomes the object of unwelcome romantic attentions from the boastful and annoyingly persistent John Thorpe, who also tries to sabotage her romantic prospects with other men.
Later, Catherine is invited to spend time at Northanger Abbey, the family estate of the Tilneys. It turns out—spoiler alert!—that the family patriarch, General Tilney, thinks that Catherine is a rich heiress, would be a suitable match for his son Henry, and is trying to throw them together as much as possible.
This echoes the plot of Burney's second novel, Cecilia. Cecilia is in truth a rich heiress, not just thought to be one, and she winds up living with one of her guardians, the manipulative and fortune-seeking Mr. Harrel. Harrel goes to great lengths to arrange her marriage with his wealthy friends (who are also his creditors). In both cases, the home of an older man turns out not to be the safe refuge that the heroine once believed it to be.
- Evelina is written in the form of letters exchanged among the characters; Austen's first attempts at writing novels were also in epistolary form: Lady Susan (written in 1794, when Austen was 19), Elinor and Marianne (the first version of Sense and Sensibility, written in 1795), and probably First Impressions (the first version of Pride and Prejudice, written in 1796-97).
- In Evelina, the kindly Rev. Villars is persuaded by his friend Lady Howard to allow his ward to visit London to "see something of the world" (Vol. I, Letter III). Despite his misgivings, Villars allows Evelina to accept Lady Howard's invitation. But after she experiences a series of misadventures he comes to regret his choice: "Oh my child! that I had not permitted the journey! My judgment always opposed it, but my resolution was not proof against persuasion" (Vol. II, Letter XXIX).
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet is firm in his opposition to Lydia's proposed trip to Brighton—until an invitation arrives from Mrs. Forster, the wife of the captain of the regiment that will be quartered there. Elizabeth, the voice of his conscience, urges him to prevent the trip, but Mr. Bennet decides that it will be a harmless way for Lydia to "expos[e] herself in some public place" (Ch LXI). Of course, Mr. Bennet comes to repent his leniency; as he tells Elizabeth, "No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame" (Ch. XLVIII).
- "...chancing herself to be born of a noble and ancient family, she thinks proper to be of opinion that birth and virtue are one and the same thing. She has some good qualities, but they rather originate from pride than principle, as she piques herself upon being too high born to be capable of an unworthy action, and thinks it incumbent upon her to support the dignity of her ancestry." Pride and Prejudice's Lady Catherine de Bourgh? No: it's a description of Evelina's Mrs. Beaumont (Vol. III, Letter III).
- And Austen may have taken the very title of her second published novel from the final chapter of Cecilia: "'The whole of this unfortunate business,' said Dr Lyster, 'has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE...[I]f to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination'" (Bk. X, Ch. X).
The occasional emotional effusion aside, Burney's books share the same kind of clear-eyed view of the hypocrises, trivialities and constraints of the social world that distinguishes Austen's novels. Here is Cecilia finding herself trapped next to a dinner companion she has been trying to avoid: "Cecilia with pain kept her seat, and with vexation reflected upon the necessity she was under of passing so large a portion of her time in company to which she was so extremely averse" (Bk. II, Ch. V.).
This is a dilemma that seems very modern; and if one of the pleasures of reading Fanny Burney is to be immersed in the social mores of the distant 18th century, another (as it is with Austen) is to discover just how contemporary her characters can seem.
Update 29 Apr 2014: A description of Mrs. Delvile, from Cecilia, Book VI, Ch. I:
Very few families visited at the castle, and fewer still had their visits returned. The arrogance of Mr. Delvile had offended all the neighbouring gentry, who could easily be better entertained than by receiving instructions of their own inferiority, which however readily they might allow, was by no means so pleasant a subject as to recompense them for hearing no other. And if Mr. Delvile was shunned through hatred, his lady no less was avoided through fear; high-spirited and fastidious, she was easily wearied and disgusted, she bore neither with frailty nor folly — those two principal ingredients in human nature! She required, to obtain her favour, the union of virtue and abilities with elegance, which meeting but rarely, she was rarely disposed to be pleased; and disdaining to conceal either contempt or aversion, she inspired in return nothing but dread or resentment; making thus, by a want of that lenity which is the milk of human kindness, and the bond of society, enemies the most numerous and illiberal by those very talents which, more meekly borne, would have rendered her not merely admired, but adored!In Fanny Burney's diary for March 15, 1782, she wrote, "I meant in Mrs. Delvile to draw a great, but not a perfect character; I meant, on the contrary, to blend upon paper, as I have frequently seen blended in life, noble and rare qualities with striking and incurable defects. I meant also, to shew how the greatest virtues and excellences may be totally obscured by the indulgence of violent passions and the ascendancy of favourite prejudices."
...Her own youth had been passed in all the severity of affliction: she had been married to Mr. Delvile by her relations, without any consultation of her heart or her will. Her strong mind disdained useless complaints, yet her discontent, however private, was deep. Ardent in her disposition, and naturally violent in her passions, her feelings were extremely acute, and to curb them by reason and principle had been the chief and hard study of her life. The effort had calmed, though it had not made her happy. To love Mr. Delvile she felt was impossible; proud without merit, and imperious without capacity, she saw with bitterness the inferiority of his faculties, and she found in his temper no qualities to endear or attract: yet she respected his birth and his family, of which her own was a branch, and whatever was her misery from the connection, she steadily behaved to him with the strictest propriety.
In a letter to Fanny dated "Thursday, [April?] 25, 1782," Hester Thrale wrote, "Upon my honour then, my dear, I have not said half of what my heart is full. The Delviles, since I wrote last, efface every thing else. When I read the lady's character in my own dressing-room, I catch myself looking at my mother's picture every moment; yours is so like her in many things."
Update 21 September 2014: For other posts about the books mentioned by Austen in that famous Northanger Abbey passage, please see:
Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?
Sensibility and sense: Camilla and Jane Austen
Crossing boundaries: Gender, race, and colonialism in Belinda
* The third title is Maria Edgeworth's Belinda (1801).