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Monday 29 July 2013

A novel influence - Jane Austen and Cecilia

Frontispiece of Cecilia (Vol 1)
by Fanny Burney (1825)
Cecilia or Memoirs of an Heiress was Fanny Burney’s second novel and was first published on 12 June 1782, the day before her 30th birthday. Cecilia is a romance but also contains a strong moral message, not only that money does not bring happiness, but also that happiness bought at the price of duty fails to bring peace and joy.

An influence on Jane Austen

Jane Austen admired Fanny Burney’s works and was undoubtedly influenced by them in her own writings. Her name is listed as a subscriber to Burney’s third novel, Camilla.

The title of Austen’s most famous book derives from a passage in Cecilia:
“The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr Lyster, “has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE.”1
A parallel with Emma

In Cecilia, the heroine befriends poor Henrietta Belfield, but is dismayed when she discovers they are in love with the same man. This is reflected in Austen’s novel Emma, where the heroine befriends poor Harriet Smith and later discovers that they are both in love with Mr Knightley.

On authors

Burney, like Austen, included in her work passages in support of reading:
Cecilia… secured to herself, for the future occupation of her leisure hours, the exhaustless fund of entertainment which reading, that richest, highest, noblest source of intellectual enjoyment, perpetually affords.2
In the same way, Burney has a dig at people who look down on authors by placing the following words into the mouth of the proud and obnoxious Mr Delvile:
And let me counsel you to remember, that a lady, whether so called from birth or only from fortune, should never degrade herself by being put on a level with writers, and such sort of people.2

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes faith-based Regency romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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1. From Cecilia or Memoirs of an Heiress - capitals as in 1825 version.
2. From Cecilia or Memoirs of an Heiress (1825).

Sources used include
Austen, Jane, Emma (1816)
Burney, Fanny, Cecilia or Memoirs of an Heiress (1825 version)
Burney, Fanny, Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, edited by her niece, Charlotte Barrett (Henry Colburn, 1846, London)


  1. The reason that Fanny Burney "influenced" Jane Austen was that in reality they were the same authors. As I show in my recently published book "Jane Austen - a New Revelation" they were both pen names of Eliza de Feuillide, Jane Austen's cousin. Eliza could not publish under her own name as she was the secret illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings, the Governor General of India.

    The anonymous dedication to the father in "Fanny Burney"'s first novel, Evelina, is in fact to Warren Hastings, as his initials and name are woven into the poem of dedication. Evelina is aged 17 and the unacknowledged daugher of an important man. At the date of Evelina's publication Eliza was aged 17 and the unacknowledged daughter of an important man. In the novel Cecilia is aged 21 and the heiress of £10,000 whereas at the date of its publication Eliza was 21 and the heiress of £10,000.

    The last of the well written novels of "Fanny Burney" was written in 1796 while the first of "Jane Austen"'s novels was begun in the same year.

    Jane Austen and Fanny Burney never met and deliberately avoided each other. Fanny Burney never mentioned Jane Austen in any of her writings. Both had very little education and only acted as secretaries and proofreaders for Eliza de Feuillide.

    1. Thank you for your comment. What extraordinary claims you are making! I find it impossible to believe that Fanny Burney's novels and Jane Austen's novels could be written by the same person. There is a lightness in Austen's works that is just not there in Burney's. The skill shown in Fanny Burney's diaries and Jane Austen's letters indicates that both women were capable of writing well, and Austen shows a humour that is reflected in her novels. If Eliza had written a novel, there is no reason why she could not have done so anonymously, as both Burney and Austen did.

  2. Thank you for your polite reply. Indeed it is extraordinary that Fanny Burney's and Jane Austen's novels were written by the same person, which is why I found it hard to believe myself at first. However, I have used several arguments in my book which are logically impossible to disprove. For instance, the last novel of Fanny Burney "The Wanderer" was considered by all the main critics at the time of its publication to be by a different author to the first three Fanny Burney novels, because it was so dreadfully badly written. We can be fairly sure that The Wanderer was written by Fanny Burney as her letters at the time were written in the same dreadful English. Eliza could not have written "The Wanderer" as Fanny Burney was stuck in France between 1802 and 1812 when it was written. So who was the author of the first three Fanny Burney novels? One reason pointing towards Eliza is that the first two novels, Evelina and Cecilia, were believed to have been written by a lady the same age as their protagonists. Both the heroines and Eliza were respectively 17 and 21 at the date of their publication, while Fanny Burney was several years older. I agree that there is no reason why Eliza could not have written a novel anonymously, and indeed this is what she did. Only after Jane Austen's death in 1817 were the novels attributed to Jane Austen. They could not be attributed to Eliza as Warren Hastings and his wife were still alive. Then of course there is the fact that Jane Austen and Fanny Burney never met which, considering Jane Austen was so heavily "influenced" by Fanny Burney is really unbelievable.

  3. Really interesting. What evidence is there about Eliza de Feuillide meeting Fanny Burney?
    And what with the letters of Jane Austen - are they fake then?

  4. I think there are recorded letters between Austen and Eliza where Austen offers writing advice and praises Eliza for focusing on a village of people, as she was currently doing for her book (which was developed into Emma). So it seems more likely that they were both competent writers.