Frances Burney’s Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress and Eighteenth-Century Britain


Author/Creator ORCID




Hood College English and Communication Arts, and History


Hood College Departmental Honors

Citation of Original Publication




In 1782 Frances Burney published her second novel, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress. Burney tended to write satirical social commentary, and Cecilia is no different. Inheritance, marriage and insanity are among the central topics covered in the novel in addition to numerous minor plots and themes. Through a combination of her observations of the society around her, as well as her personal experiences, Burney creates a fictional tale that portrays the ups and downs an heiress in Cecilia’s position might experience. In the novel, Burney demonstrates the detrimental effects that male authority could have on women through her depiction of Cecilia’s controlling guardians as well as through the patriarchal structure of society as a whole. Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress is the story of the titular heroine who is bound by her uncle, the Dean’s, condition in his will: in order to receive her inheritance from her deceased uncle, Cecilia must marry a man who will take her last name, Beverley, in place of his own. As she is still underage, she is placed under the guardianship of three men: Mr. Harrel, Mr. Briggs, and Mr. Delvile. Cecilia and her third guardian’s son, Mortimer Delvile, fall in love over the course of the novel. However, the condition in her uncle’s will poses a problem to their relationship since Mortimer’s family would never accept the name change from Delvile to Beverley. Cecilia and Mortimer resort to a secret marriage in order to be together. Following the wedding, Cecilia experiences an episode of insanity as a result of extreme stress and anxiety. She eventually recovers and lives with Mortimer and his family in contentment, but the shadow that Burney casts on their happiness is ever present.