Monday, May 26, 2014

Book, opera, Bollywood: The strange journey of Lalla Rookh, part 3

Shyama as Lala Rookh

Edward Said's influential book Orientalism (1978), in the words of scholar Sadik Jalal al-'Azm, "situates Europe’s interest in the Orient within the context of the...expansion of modern bourgeois the expense of the rest of the world in the form of its subjugation, pillage, and exploitation." Western European images of the non-Christian cultures of North Africa, the Middle East, and Central, South, and East Asia, are thus "shot through and through with racist assumptions, barely camouflaged mer­cenary interests, reductionistic explanations and anti-human preju­dices." [1]

The strange journey of Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh complicates this picture in a number of ways. First, as I suggested in the first post of this series, Moore saw British imperialism in India as a mirror of British imperialism in Ireland. His sympathies are clearly with the victims, and not the perpetrators, of "sub­jugation, pillage, and exploitation." And while he was necessarily portraying a culture with which he was not directly or personally familiar, he clearly strove to represent it with as great a degree of accuracy and cultural sensitivity as possible (even if the scholarship of his day was imbued with Orientalist assumptions in Said's sense). In Moore's work, in which disguise plays such a large role, the exotic is a mask placed on a critique of both the dominance of conquerors and certain expressions of resistance by the subjugated. Of course, it's also a love story in which readers are clearly intended to sympathize and identify with the troubadour-king Feramorz and the princess Lalla Rookh.

Even though Felicien David's opera Lalla-Roukh focussed exclusively on that love story and edited out Moore's political allegories, as I pointed out in the second post of this series, I don't think the opera falls into the trap of romanticizing a mysterious Orient. Marriages arranged between powerful families for political and economic advantage remained the rule among the nobility in 19th-century France, as well as India. So when Princess Lalla-Roukh determines not to proceed with her arranged marriage with a king after she falls in love with a man she thinks is a penniless troubadour, she is acting in defiance of norms existing in Western as well as Eastern cultures. This is hardly a picture of a backward and benighted East being contrasted with an enlightened West. Also, Lalla-Roukh's melancholy arias place her at the affective center of the opera; it may be a comedy, but the music signals to us that we are to take her feelings and emotional dilemmas as seriously as our own.

The 1958 Bollywood movie Lala Rookh

But the strongest evidence that the story wasn't seen in India as exploitative, reductionist or racist is its adaptation in the late 1950s as a Bollywood film. Perhaps it was a self-conscious gesture of cultural re-appropriation on the part of the filmmakers; more likely, producer Ismat Chughtai, director Athar Siraj, and screenwriter Kaifi Azmi (father of actress Shabana Azmi) just knew a good tale when they heard it.

The version of Lala Rookh available on YouTube does not have English subtitles, and my comprehension of spoken Hindi is next to non-existent, so my understanding of the storyline is heavily dependent on Dustedoff's wonderful review. Any misunderstanding of the action or misinterpretation of the characters in what follows, though, is solely my responsibility.

When the movie opens we encounter Shah Murad (Talat Mahmood), king of Noorabad, walking the streets of his city in disguise. Hearing the sounds of a banquet coming from the house of Hassan (Lotan), the Shah and his manservant Mansoor peek in at a window to watch the festivities:

Diguise and eavesdropping / spying / voyeurism are elements from Moore's story that will be given even more importance in the film.

When Hassan's "friends" and neighbors discover that he has no money to pay for the banquet, they flee in disgust (and in fear of being asked to contribute to the cost of their own pleasures). The Shah decides to test Hassan's character by playing a joke on him; the Shah's jesting and teasing nature, displayed throughout the film, makes explicit his association with Krishna (an association made in Moore's original version as well).

The Shah and Mansoor go in and pretend to be weary travelers in need of some food. Despite having just been eaten out of house and home, Hassan literally sells the clothes off his back to provide his guests with some refreshment. Hassan may be a bit of a buffoon, but at heart he's generous, and he (mostly) tries to do the right thing.

No sooner does he serve his guests the food, though, than it disappears (up Mansoor's voluminous sleeves while Hassan's back is turned), and they plead for more. Eventually Hassan is driven to despair, and he's about to kill himself when the Shah overhears and realizes that the joke has gone too far. Not knowing when to quit will be a recurring problem for the Shah: there are several more instances over the course of the film where a joke is carried to a point where it has near-tragic consequences, including for the Shah himself.

So does Hassan's almost-suicide determine the Shah to reward his generous subject and end his misery? Not quite: the Shah decides he wants to play another joke or two first. He puts an opiate in Hassan's wine-cup, and when Hassan wakes up the next day, he's in the palace, and everyone is treating him like a king:

He also meets and is immediately smitten by a comely maidservant, Para:

After a day of lording it over the palace staff, though, Hassan wakes up the next morning back in his own bed, as powerless and impoverished as ever. His mother and his neighbors don't believe him when he claims to have been to the palace and to have met the Shah. He runs to the Shah to complain, and for his pains is "forced" to marry one of the Shah's servants. To the delight of both parties, it turns out to be Para.

The Shah may be whimsical, but he's not all-powerful. One of his advisors reminds him that he's facing his own forced marriage to a princess from a neighboring kingdom—the match has been arranged by their fathers—and tells him that the news has just arrived that she's on her way to Noorabad. The Shah decides to see what his father has gotten him into: he disguises himself as a musician and, taking Hassan with him, goes out to join her caravan.

We're already 40 minutes into the movie, and we have only just reached the point at which Moore's story begins (neither Hassan nor Para are characters in either the book or the opera). And almost immediately, we depart from it again: Para, angry at being left behind by Hassan, rides to join them—disguised as her "brother":

Somehow the Shah immediately sees through this convincing disguise, but Para silently pleads with him not to reveal her secret, and the Shah—always willing to play along with a joke—silently agrees.

The princess's caravan has halted so that the princess and her wazir can be entertained. The Shah finds a vantage from which he can spy on the music and dancing—and on the princess:

He also notices, though, a band of menacing dacoits sneaking up on the princess's unsuspecting wazir:

In the ensuing melee, the Shah fights off a dozen men to rescue the princess; Hassan (with the greatest reluctance) and Para (with blows that are enthusiastic, but not especially well-aimed) also join in. The Shah is bruised and wounded in the fight, but the wazir remains suspicious of the interlopers. The grateful Princess Lala Rookh (Shyama at her loveliest), though, orders the wazir to allow her brave defenders to join the caravan. She goes to thank the stranger, whom she calls Ajnabi (Stranger), and tend his wounds. When their eyes meet it's love at first sight:

When Ajnabi tells her that he's one of the Shah's servants, the princess is eager to hear what her future husband is like. Oh, he's very nice, Ajnabi assures her. He's not really very old—he only has a small harem—he's only a little lame—and he doesn't stutter very often. Oh—and he's only lost one eye…

Somehow the princess doesn't find this news reassuring:

She is so dejected after this interview that the wazir asks Ajnabi to sing to her to lift her spirits. And now, finally, an unconscionable 50 minutes into the film, Talat Mahmood (a fine singer as well as an actor) picks up his mandolin, flashes an irresistible smile, and regales her (and us) with song. But "Thi Ek Shahzaadi" is worth the wait:

My Hindi and Urdu are next to non-existent, but I believe the song describes the love the Shah feels for his betrothed; at the end, the princess, visibly distressed, cries out "Lies! All lies!" It's not the Shah she wants to love her, but Ajnabi. And soon their united hearts are signaled by their united voices in "Pyaas Kuch aur Bhi":

The playback singer for Shyama is the great Asha Bhosle (credited here as Asha Bhonsle), and the music is by Khayyam with lyrics by Kaifi Azmi.

The strangers have touched more than one heart in the caravan. Para overhears the princess's maidservant declaring her own passion for Hassan:

Para sets Hassan on the straight and narrow. But soon another lady in the princess's retinue is overcome by Para's charms:

And Ajnabi is serenading the princess by moonlight and giving her private "mandolin lessons":

After a brief but intense struggle between her love for Ajnabi and her duty toward the Shah, the princess (chastely) spends a night under the stars with Ajnabi.

An enraged wazir decides that he must intervene: the arrival of this impudent stranger is upsetting an alliance between royal houses, and he's determined to get him out of the way. He orders his men to kill Ajnabi for his presumption, and as soon as the princess has parted from him at dawn, Ajnabi is stabbed in the back and left for dead:

Amazingly, we have just arrived at the interval. There are a miraculous recovery, more clandestine meetings, more threats of death, more disguises, more eavesdropping, more practical jokes, and more misunderstandings (perhaps too many?) to come on Lala Rookh's journey to true love with Shah Murad. And there will be an odd little comic coda featuring Hassan and Para, which (as Dustedoff points out) adds nothing to the story, and isn't even particularly comic.

But even if the film, like Shah Murad himself, doesn't quite know when to quit, it is very much worth seeing for the wonderfully elaborated story, the delightful chemistry between Shyama and Talat Mahmood, and Khayyam's excellent songs. And as the curious and very entertaining final (?) stage on the strange journey of Lalla Rookh.

Last time: Félicien David's opera Lalla Roukh.


1. Sadik Jalal al-'Azm, Orientalism and orientalism in reverse. Khamsin 8,'azm

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Book, opera, Bollywood: The strange journey of Lalla Rookh, part 2

Marianne Fiset as Lalla-Roukh
Part 2 - The opera: Félicien David's Lalla-Roukh

Félicien David is a name that, in more than 20 years of listening to classical music, I had never knowingly heard before about a month ago. But in the mid-19th century David was famous for his works on exotic subjects: after a trip to Egypt he wrote 22 Melodies orientales (1836) for piano and the "symphonic ode" Le Désert (1844); later he wrote operas set during a slave revolt in Brazil and during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Herculaneum.

Félicien David
No source I've found discusses why David turned next to the essentially comic plot of Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh. Although the Indian setting must have appealed to David's love of the picturesque, the opera may have been a commission from the Opéra Comique. Whatever the inspiration, it was a happy one: from the first performance in 1862, David's Lalla-Roukh was a huge hit. Demand was so great that special trains were run to bring opera fans to Paris from outlying regions. Lalla-Roukh's popularity remained undiminished for the rest of the 19th century; over the next three decades it received hundreds of performances in Paris and across Europe.

At the end of the 19th century, though, the eclipse of David and his operas was sudden and almost complete. Lalla-Roukh dropped out of the repertory, and for over a hundred years only a few arias and duets from the work were occasionally recorded or performed in concert.

But in January 2013 Opera Lafayette, under conductor and artistic director Ryan Brown, staged in Washington D.C. and New York City what were apparently the first performances of the opera since 1898. Brown's troupe was able to sandwich recording sessions in between those two performances, and in March of this year the world premiere recording of Lalla-Roukh was released on Naxos Records.

Listening to the opera today, it's difficult to understand why a work so full of melody was so thoroughly forgotten. Perhaps it's because the opera is more atmospheric than dramatic. The 1890s saw the rise of the lurid plots of verismo and the creation of Puccini's first great tragedies. The delicacy and charm of Lalla Roukh—an opera which ends with two pairs of lovers united, and in which no one is murdered, commits suicide, goes mad, or is left in despair—must have become unfashionable.

As with many operas based on literary sources, substantial changes were made in translating Moore's story to the stage. David's librettists, Michel Carré and Hippolyte Lucas, jettisoned everything in the book but the central love story: while travelling from Dehli to meet for the first time the King of Samarkand, to whom her marriage has been arranged, the princess Lalla-Roukh encounters a handsome young troubadour and falls in love with him. In a departure from Moore's original, in which the princess resigns herself to going through with the arranged marriage, in Carré and Lucas's version she vows to refuse the King and find her way back to the troubadour. Little does she suspect that the troubadour and the King are one and the same.

In addition to changing some of the details of the story, Carré and Lucas also changed the names of many of the characters: the troubadour Feramorz became Noureddin; Lalla Rookh's chamberlain Fadladeen became the King's emissary Baskir; and three comic servants, Bakbara, Kaboul, and Lalla-Roukh's lady-in-waiting Mirza, were added. But the changes do no harm to Moore's story, and instead compress and intensify the action.

L to R: Natalie Paulin, Marianne Fiset, and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro
On the evidence of the Naxos recording and videos about the production posted on YouTube, the Opera Lafayette production looks and sounds as though it was delightful. The cast, although largely unknown to me, is excellent. In addition to directing the stage action, bass-baritone Bernard Deletré—whom we've seen previously in Purcell's Fairy Queen with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, and in the Mark Morris production of Rameau's Platée—took the comic role of Baskir. Canadian soprano Marianne Fiset is a lovely-voiced Lalla-Roukh. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro portrayed a Noureddin who is more passionate, perhaps, than lyrical, while Nathalie Paulin's rich mezzo as Mirza ensured that it's the dilemmas of the women that are the opera's dramatic focus—as they should be.

Staging Lalla-Roukh raises questions of cultural appropriation on many levels, but to their credit Brown and Deletré neither tried to recreate the style of 19th-century French Orientalism, nor treated David's work ironically or as camp. Taking the first approach would do violence to 21st-century sensitivities, while the second would do violence to the work. Instead, they tried to bring to the opera a modern, cross-cultural sensibility. To stage the dances of the bayadères, Brown brought in classically-trained Indian-American choreographer Anuradha Nehru and her company Kalanidhi Dance; the costumes were commissioned from Indian fashion designer Poonam Bhagat.

Chitra Kalyandurg of Kalanidhi Dance
In reviving and recording this forgotten gem, Opera Lafayette has outshone opera companies with budgets many times as large. If you enjoy the sound-world of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, Bizet's Pearl Fishers or Delibes' Lakmé, you'll find Lalla-Roukh to be a fresh new discovery with some welcome familiarities. You can listen to brief excerpts from Act I on the Opera Lafayette website.

The strange journey of Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh doesn't end here, though...

Next time: The 1958 Bollywood movie Lala Rookh.

Last time: Thomas Moore's 1817 poem Lalla Rookh

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Book, opera, Bollywood: The strange journey of Lalla Rookh

Part 1 - The book: Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh

Thomas Moore was a 19th-century Irish balladeer and poet. Over the course of a long and colorful life he failed as an actor, playwright and impresario, but found success writing lyric poems as a self-styled modern-day Anacreon (he even became known as "Anacreon Moore"). Moore challenged Byron to a duel, later became his friend and literary executor, and then betrayed him by burning Byron's memoirs after his death because his surviving family considered them too shocking. Moore was an Irish patriot who was patronized by the British aristocracy, and later met (and performed for) George IV and Queen Victoria.

In 1817 Moore published Lalla Rookh, which was subtitled "An Oriental Romance" and set in Mughal India. Moore had never been to India; his wife was the daughter of an officer of the East India Company, but she was born and raised in England, and her father died when she was a child. More direct inspirations for Moore's poem were likely Byron's four Turkish Tales, published between 1813 and 1815; Moore's book contains four lengthy narrative poems set in India and Persia.

But Lalla Rookh is not, or not just, an Orientalist fantasy about the exotic East. For one thing, Moore included footnotes throughout the text and nearly 50 pages of scholarly notes at the end; he was clearly desirous of faithfully representing Indian, Persian, Central Asian and Arabic cultures. For another, perhaps seeing in India a fellow victim of British imperialism, he encoded commentary on the British suppression of Irish Catholic nationalism throughout Lalla Rookh.

Lalla Rookh ("Tulip-Cheek" in Persian, according to Moore's footnote), daughter of the Mughal Emperor Aurungzebe (whom we know as Aurangzeb), is pledged in marriage to Aliris, King of Bucharia (Bukhara, in what is now southern Uzbekistan; at the time in which the poem is set, the late 17th century, Bukhara was on the borders of both the Mughal Empire and the Persian Safavid Empire). The King sends a number of attendants to accompany Lalla Rookh's palanquin on the journey from Dehli to Cashmere (our Kashmir), where he will meet her and they will be married. Among the retinue is a young troubadour, Feramorz:
He was a youth about LALLA ROOKH's own age, and graceful as that idol of women, Crishna [Moore's footnote: "The Indian Apollo"],—such as he appears to their young imaginations, heroic, beautiful, breathing music from his very eyes, and exalting the religion of his worshippers into love. [1]
Feramorz beguiles the time (and the princess) with four songs, the texts of which are interspersed with the narrative of Lalla Rookh. It's in these song-poems that parallels arise to the situation of the Irish. In "The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan," the banner which once linked religion and political liberation becomes "the rallying sign of fraud and anarchy" [2]. In "Paradise and the Peri," the winged spirit of the title brings as a gift to heaven the last drop of blood shed by a hero resisting the invaders of his country, and is told by the angel guarding the gates of paradise that "Sweet is our welcome of the Brave / who die thus for their native Land" [3]. In "The Fire-Worshippers," Feramorz praises "the brave struggles of the Fire-Worshippers of Persia"--followers of "the old religion"--"against their Arab masters" [4]. "The old religion" was a term applied in England to Catholicism.

But despite the political commentary, Moore's book isn't subtitled "An Oriental Romance" for nothing. In the final poem, "The Light of the Haram," we turn from political and religious strife to "the reconcilement of a sort of lover's quarrel, which took place between [the Sultana Nourmahal] and the Emperor [Selim] during a Feast of Roses at Cashmere." [5] The lovers' quarrel is ended when Nourmahal performs a love song for Selim while veiled: "'Twas not the air, 'twas not the words, / But that deep magic in the chords / And in the lips that gave such power / As music knew not till that hour." [6]

The princess feels the same power drawing her love irrevocably towards Feramorz. But the end of her journey, and her marriage to the King, are approaching fast, and "...LALLA ROOKH saw no more of FERAMORZ. She now felt that her short dream of happiness was over, and that she had nothing but the recollection of its few blissful hours, like the one draught of sweet water that serves the camel across the wilderness, to be her heart's refreshment during the dreary waste of life that was before her." [7]

But in a dramatic reversal of the story of the Emperor Selim and the Sultana Nourmahal, when Lalla Rookh is brought to meet Aliris, she feels a shock of recognition: "It was FERAMORZ, himself, who stood before her! —FERAMORZ, was, himself, the Sovereign of Bucharia, who in this disguise had accompanied his young bride from Delhi, and having won her love as an humble minstrel, now amply deserved to enjoy it as a King." [8]

Moore's book was wildly popular, going through multiple editions in the space of a year, and continuing to be reprinted for decades afterward. (I own a miniature "Brilliant Edition" published by George Leavitt in New York, dated 1869 in pencil on one of the endpapers; it was recently purchased for $5 at Moe's Books.) Perhaps not surprisingly, given that many of Moore's poems were explicitly intended to be set to music, composers took inspiration from the story. But as the 19th century wore on, later interpreters tended to de-emphasize Moore's implicit criticisms of imperialism.

Robert Schumann created an oratorio from his own German translation of "Paradise and the Peri"; Gaspare Spontini and Anton Rubenstein also adapted the story. But the focus of the next part of this post will be the opera Lalla-Roukh by Félicien David (1862), which had been unperformed in its entirety for more than a century—until last year.

Next time: Part 2 - The opera: Félicien David's Lalla Roukh.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?

Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, ca. 1810
As I mentioned in the previous post, Jane Austen's favorite novelist: Fanny Burney, the narrator of Northanger Abbey singles out Burney's novels Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796) for special praise. She says that they are works "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" [1]. As I continue reading Cecilia, I'm struck by reasons beyond its literary qualities why Jane Austen might have esteemed it so highly: I believe that Austen felt a strong personal connection with the dilemmas of its heroine.

A forbidden marriage

Cecilia is an heiress, but a condition of her inheritance is that, if she marries, her husband must take her name. She meets and falls in love with Mortimer Delvile, the only son of a proud and ancient family. His parents forbid their union, leaving Cecilia miserable:
...her fate was finally determined, and its determination was not more unhappy than humiliating; she was openly rejected by the family whose alliance she was known to wish; she was compelled to refuse the man of her choice, though satisfied his affections were her own. A misery so peculiar she found hard to support, and almost bursting with conflicting passions, her heart alternately swelled from offended pride, and sank from disappointed tenderness. [2]
In December 1795, when she was twenty, Jane Austen met Tom Lefroy. He had recently graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, and was on his way to study law in London when he visited his aunt and uncle in Ashe, a small Hampshire village about 50 miles southwest of London. Ashe is also about two miles from Steventon, where Jane was born and had lived her entire life; the Ashe Lefroys and the Austens were well acquainted.

It was the Christmas season, and Jane and Tom paid courtesy calls to each other's houses, and danced together at several balls. On Saturday 9 January, 1796, the morning after a ball, Jane wrote in a letter to her sister Cassandra,
...I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you...[H]e has but one fault, which, I trust, time will entirely remove—it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. [3]
In a letter to Cassandra dated the following Thursday, Jane wrote of the dance at Ashe to be given the next night:
I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat.

...Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley and all his estate to her for her sole use and benefit in the future, and not only him, but all my other admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I don't care sixpence.

Friday.—At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over.—My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea...There is a report that Tom is to be married to a Lichfield lass. [4]
Tom Lefroy was dependent on a great-uncle for support, and so was not free to marry a woman with no fortune such as Jane Austen. Stories persisted within the Lefroy family for decades that Tom had been sent away by his aunt, out of concern for Jane, to prevent this flirtation from turning more serious.

There is strong evidence that Tom indeed fell in love with Jane. In 1799 he married Mary Paul; their first daughter, born in 1802, was named Jane Christmas Lefroy. While Jane was also the name of Mary Paul's mother, the addition of "Christmas" is almost certainly an allusion to the season of Tom's first meeting with Jane Austen, and suggests that Jane Christmas is Austen's namesake.

And in 1870 Tom's nephew Thomas Edward Preston Lefroy wrote to Jane's nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, who had just published a memoir of Jane and was preparing a second edition, "My late venerable uncle...said in so many words that he was in love with her, although he qualified his confession by saying it was a boyish love. As this occurred in a friendly & private conversation, I feel some doubt whether I ought to make it public." [5] In the second edition of the memoir, Austen-Leigh wrote only that Lefroy would "remember and speak, as he sometimes did, of his former companion, as one to be much admired, and not easily forgotten by those who had ever known her." [6]

There has been speculation about the extent to which Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy (or Sense and Sensibility's Mr. Willoughby) may be modelled on Tom Lefroy. However, I'd like to suggest that he is (also?) represented in another character: Darcy's cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam. He and Elizabeth engage in mild flirtation while she is visiting Hunsford Parsonage. In conversation with her one day he tells her that he will be leaving soon, and then warns her (and himself?) that he is not free to bestow his heart:
"Younger sons cannot marry where they like."
"Unless where they like women of fortune, which I think they very often do."
"Our habits of expense make us too dependent, and there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marry without some attention to money."
"Is this," thought Elizabeth, "meant for me?" and she coloured at the idea; but, recovering herself, said in a lively tone, "And pray, what is the usual price of an earl's younger son? Unless the elder brother is very sickly, I suppose you would not ask above fifty thousand pounds."
He answered her in the same style, and the subject dropped. [7]

Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, ca. 1804

A change of heart

In Cecilia, Mortimer Delvile finally persuades the heroine, despite his family's opposition, to marry him—and to have the wedding in London in just a few days' time. However, no sooner does she agree to his plan than she regrets it, and spends a sleepless night:
Left now to herself, sensations unfelt before filled the heart of Cecilia. All that had passed for a while appeared a dream; her ideas were indistinct, her memory was confused, her faculties seemed all out of order, and she had but an imperfect consciousness either of the transaction in which she had just been engaged, or of the promise she had bound herself to fulfil; even truth from imagination she scarcely could separate; all was darkness and doubt, inquietude and disorder!

But when at length her recollection more clearly returned, and her situation appeared to her such as it really was, divested alike of false terrors or delusive expectations, she found herself still farther removed from tranquillity.

Hitherto, though no stranger to sorrow...she had yet invariably possessed the consolation of self-approving reflections; but the step she was now about to take, all her principles opposed; ...scarce was Delvile out of sight, before she regretted her consent to it.

...Yet to disappoint Delvile so late, by forfeiting a promise so positively accorded; to trifle with a man who to her had been uniformly candid, to waver when her word was engaged, and retract when he thought himself secure,—honour, justice and shame told her the time was now past. [8]
And yet, she does decide to refuse him. As the quote above suggests, her vacillation is not capricious, but emotionally agonizing.

Jane Austen also spent 24 hours in an emotional quandary over a proposal. In late November 1802 Jane and her sister Cassandra made an extended visit to their longtime friends Catherine and Alethea Bigg at their family home Manydown, about five miles from Steventon (although at this time Jane and Cassandra were living in Bath with their parents; her brother James and his family were living in Steventon). A week into the visit, Harris Bigg-Wither, Catherine and Alethea's brother, proposed to Jane. James Austen's daughter Caroline later wrote:
Mr. Wither was very plain in person—awkward, & even uncouth in manner—nothing but his size to recommend him—he was a fine big man—but one need not look about for secret reason to account for a young lady's not loving him—a great many would have taken him without love—... [9]
Harris made his offer on the evening of 2 December, and Jane accepted him. But the next morning she withdrew her consent, and she and Cassandra abruptly left Manydown. Caroline continued,
I conjecture that the advantages he could offer, & her gratitude for his love, & her long friendship with his family, induced my Aunt to decide that she would marry him when he should ask her—but that having accepted him she found she was miserable & that the place & fortune which would certainly be his, could not alter the man...To be sure she should not have said yes—over night—but I have always respected her for the courage in cancelling that yes—the next morning. [10]
Several decades afterwards, one of Jane's nieces, Catherine Hubback, read the letters Jane later wrote to Cassandra referring to this incident (Cassandra eventually destroyed these letters and many others written by Jane); Catherine wrote, "I gathered from the letters that it was in a momentary fit of self-delusion that Aunt Jane accepted Mr Wither's proposal, and that when it was all settled eventually, and the negative decisively given she was much relieved. I think the affair vexed her a great deal..." [11]

Cecilia doesn't want to act dishonorably in marrying the man she loves; Jane Austen didn't want to act dishonorably in marrying a man she didn't love. In Pride and Prejudice, on learning of her sister Elizabeth's engagement to a man she is believed to disdain, Jane Bennet says, "'And do you really love him quite well enough? Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection.'" [12] And in an example of life imitating art imitating life, when Jane's niece Fanny sought her advice about an admirer, Jane wrote:
I shall turn round and entreat you not to commit yourself farther, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection; and if his deficiences of manner, &c. &c., strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once. [13]

An objection, and a response

I've proposed that one reason Jane Austen esteemed Fanny Burney's Cecilia so highly is that she recognized her own emotional quandaries in those of its heroine—in particular, her feelings when faced with a forbidden marriage and a change of heart over a marriage proposal. However, one possible objection to this idea is that Northanger Abbey, the novel in which Austen's narrator specifically praises Cecilia, was first written in 1798-99. While this is after the flirtation with Tom Lefroy, it occurs before Harris Bigg-Wither's proposal of marriage.

However, it's known that in 1803, just a few months after her acceptance and next-day refusal of Bigg-Wither's proposal, Jane Austen revised the manuscript of Northanger Abbey (then entitled Susan) before submitting it anonymously to a publisher. And in 1816, Jane's brother Henry was able to buy the still-anonymous manuscript back for the same £10 that had been paid for it by the publisher; Jane revised the manuscript again before her untimely death in July 1817.

If her own experiences inspired her narrator's praise of Fanny Burney's novels and their insight into the human heart, that praise might have been added during either the 1803 or the 1817 revision. As additional evidence, the passage in its final form must have post-dated the novel's initial composition, because Maria Edgeworth's Belinda (published in 1801) is included in the narrator's praise. Unfortunately only a fragment of the Susan manuscript survives, and so this is a question that, like many relating to Austen's life and work, may never be definitively resolved.

For other posts on Jane Austen and Fanny Burney, please see:
Jane Austen's favorite novelist: Fanny Burney
Sensibility and sense: Camilla and Jane Austen

1. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Ch. V.
2. Fanny Burney, Cecilia, Book VII, Ch. VIII.
3. Jane Austen's Letters to her sister Cassandra and others, R.W. Chapman, ed. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1932. Vol. I, pp. 1-3. (JAL)
4. JAL, Vol. I, pp. 5-6.
5. Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A family record, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 2004. p. 278. (JAFR) This book is an essential resource for documents relating to Jane Austen's life.
6. James Austen-Leigh, A memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew. Folio Society, London, 1989, p. 50.
7. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Ch. 33.
8. Cecilia, Book VII, Ch. III.
9. JAFR, pp. 137-138.
10. JAFR, p. 138.
11. JAFR, p. 138.
12. Pride and Prejudice, Ch. 59.
13. JAL, Vol. II, p. 410.