Sunday, 24 April 2016

Jane Austen indebted to Fanny Burney?


In Fanny Burney's Cecilia, Delvile professes his love to the heroine: Upon you, madam, all that is good or evil of my future life, as far as relates to its happiness or misery, will, from this very hour, almost solely depend. In Chapter 23 of Persuasion, when Anne Elliot takes up the famous letter, we read: On the contents of that letter depended all which this world could do for her!

It seems to have been a formula within contemporary novels at a great emotional climax for all future happiness to 'depend' on the contents of a communication.

Probably Jane Austen intuitively borrowed more from Fanny Burney than many critics have acknowledged.

A Canadian correspondent - Ellen Moody - pointed out to me, for example, how close in tone and choice of diction the two authoresses are. Many sentences in Burney have their close analogies in Austen:

The stance taken towards the world by the heroine of Cecilia recalls the stance taken towards the world by a number of Austen heroines. Cecilia at times seems a combination of Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot: she has the sense of the one and the sensibility (romanticism) of the other. She recalls Marianne in having to endure the asinine and ostentatious. She also resembles Fanny Price. Cecilia is also an outsider; if she were not an heiress, she would certainly not be chased after. She refuses insofar as she can to be co-opted into a phony society; she holds fast to some old-fashioned values. We could say she resembles a certain type of heroine in Austen which is captured in some realm to which Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Anne Elliot all belong. Catherine Morland also belongs to this set. She is an early version of it. Cecilia recalls Sense and Sensibility in its fops, concerns with money and language. Mrs. Harrel recalls Mrs. Palmer. When I read Cecilia, I was struck by Mortimer’s description of Henrietta Belfield in which he tells Cecilia that he has learned to like Henrietta very much, but could never find in her an equal and companion for life. It reads like an analysis of Harriet Smith from the point of view of Mr. Knightley: 'Miss Belfield has, I grant, an attraction in the simplicity of her manners which charms by its singularity; her heart, too, seems all purity, and her temper all softness. I have not, you find, been blind to her merit; on the contrary, I have both admired and pitied her. But far indeed is she removed from all chance of rivalry in my heart! A character such as hers for a while is irresistibly alluring; but when its novelty is over, simplicity uninformed becomes wearisome, and softness without dignity is too indiscriminate to give delight. We sigh for entertainment, when cloyed by mere sweetness; and heavily drags on the load of life when the companion of our social hours wants spirit, intelligence, and cultivation’.

And take the chapter called 'A Rout'. There is the dialogue over the concert in which all pretend to listen to the music and exclaim how much they enjoy it while clearly doing no such thing. It recalls the scene at the Middletons’ where only Brandon listens to Marianne and the scenes at the musical party in London where Elinor meets Edward Ferrars. A couple of the scenes between Cecilia and Mr. Meadows and Cecilia and Delvile are directly echoed in the more arrogant and withdrawn behaviour of Burney's men. This recalls Darcy: 'he looked grave and thoughtful, saluted her at a distance, shewed no sign of any intention to approach her, regarded the dancing and dancers as a public spectacle in which he had no chance of personal interest'. Of dancing at balls the affected Mr. Meadows says: 'What dancing! Oh, dreadful! how it was ever adopted in a civilized country I cannot find out; 'tis certainly a Barbarian exercise, and of savage origin'. Then at the conclusion of the rout, Delvile's behaviour (as described) recalls Darcy's when he comes with Bingley to visit the Bennets: 'The more she recollected and dwelt upon the difference of his behaviour in their preceding meeting, the more angry as well as amazed she became at the change'. Cecilia plays Emma to Henrietta's Harriet, including Henrietta's falling in love with Delvile in just the way Harriet fell for Knightley.

I am most grateful to Ellen Moody for this analysis.