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Frances Burney: Throwing Shade Since 1782

Say what you will about the injustice of women writing under male pseudonyms in the 18th century–or, as in the case of Frances Burney, “Anonymous”–it certainly afforded the writer an opportunity to spit hot fire on society with all the safety of a YouTube comments section.

I’m 90 pages into Cecilia and Burney has already taken aim at at her high society contemporaries for their arrogance, foppishness, apathy, and outright delusions. It’s a brave, gutsy, borderline aggressive piece of writing wrapped in a non-threatening romance.

It’s pretty great.

If I expected anything from Cecilia–a novel credited as being a huge influence on Jane Austen–it’s that I thought it would have been safe. I knew a little bit about Burney’s  independent streak, but I never would have assumed she penned novels aimed at the establishment. It seems like such an unwise thing to do at the time, for a man, let alone a woman.

This is to say that Frances Burney was punk rock, and she basically wrote the English gentry version of “Money is Not Our God” by Killing Joke.

Here is just a small sample of the people/characteristics she attacks.

Contempt for the Lower Class

The TON misses, as they are called, who now infest the town, are in two divisions, the SUPERCILIOUS, and the VOLUBLE. The SUPERCILIOUS, like Miss Leeson, are silent, scornful, languid, and affected, and disdain all converse but with those of their own set; the VOLUBLE, like Miss Larolles, are flirting, communicative, restless, and familiar, and attack, without the smallest ceremony, every one they think worthy their notice. But this they have in common, that at home they think of nothing but dress, abroad, of nothing but admiration, and that everywhere they hold in supreme contempt all but themselves.

Translation: they’re Mean Girls, essentially.

My favourite thing about Frances Burney is that she always marched to her own drum: she married a much poorer man for love, not money; she worked for what she had alongside the Queen; and here, we see her not giving two shits about what society thinks the rich are supposed to be.

The phrase “every one they think worthy of their notice” is just so biting. I love it.

In the words of Danny Tripp, she looked like one of them, but talked like one of us.

Gossip Bitches

Several days passed on nearly in the same manner; the mornings were all spent gossiping, shopping, and dressing, and the evenings were regularly appropriated to public places, or large parties of company.

In 2016, we give someone credit or label them as progressive if they forsake even the smallest bit of materialism.Someone goes a whole meal without touching their phone and, for that day at least, they’re deified.

Meanwhile, Burney was rolling her eyes at mall walkers in stilettos 220 years ago.

The money I’d pay to read her take down piece on the paparazzi and celebrity culture! The gossip rags, Page 6, everything the Kardashians have ever done, and the rest of our superficial garbage.

Rich, Apathetic Pricks

He little thinks of our distress, because he has been afflicted with none himself.

This line comes from the adorable Mrs. Hill, a poor but honest old woman whose husband did some work for the uncaring bastard that is Mr. Harrel. Harrel never paid the man, and now their family is starving. Hill, speaking to a sympathetic Cecilia, delivers this wonderful line.

Burney focuses a lot on how the rich are out of touch. How their uncaring, arrogant, judgmental natures are due, most likely, to a complete lack of understanding for the lives of the lower class.


“What, at last,” cried she, “is human felicity, who has tasted, and where is it to be found? If I, who, to others, seem marked out for even a partial possession of it,—distinguished by fortune, caressed by the world, brought into the circle of high life, and surrounded with splendor, seek without finding, yet losing, scarce know how I miss it!”

Cecilia seems to be the only person (thus far) who understands that the privileged positions held by the wealthy are the result of a ridiculous amount of luck.

They’re caressed by the world, as she says. They were handed everything and the world demanded nothing. Yet they act as if their mansions and ballgowns were hard-earned and justified.

It raises the question, “Who was reading Cecilia?”

For the most part, it had to have been the gentry, right? The wealthy would have been Burney’s primary readership, and yet the novel’s subtitle could have been Cecilia: Shots Fired.

This would have had so little appeal, one would think, at the time. It was in no one’s interest (in the upper class) to think the way Burney thought, to challenge the status quo that afforded them their extraordinarily comfortable lives. And yet Burney–with Evelina, Cecilia, and Camilla–wrote some of the most widely-read fiction of the time. You have to give her audiences some credit, I think.


Favorite Quote So Far:

The charms of Cecilia had forcibly, suddenly, and deeply penetrated his heart; he only lived in her presence, away from her he hardly existed.

Craziest Use of 18th Century Language and Style So Far:

The next morning Cecilia, at the repeated remonstrances of Mrs. Harrel, consented to call upon MIss Larolles. She felt the impracticability of beginning at present the alteration in her way of life she had projected and therefore thought it most expedient to assume no singularity, till her independency should enable her support it with consistency; yet greater than ever was her internal eagerness to better satisfy her inclination and her conscience in the disposition of her time, and the distribution of her wealth, since she had heard the emphatic charge of her unknown mentor.

That paragraph is insane.

But on a positive note, how great a word is “remonstrances?”



Rick @ Read the North View All

Originally from Nova Scotia, Rick lives in Edmonton, Alberta, because, well, most of Nova Scotia lives there anyway. He is neutral good.

5 thoughts on “Frances Burney: Throwing Shade Since 1782 Leave a comment

  1. I’m quite certain I underlined your favourite quote too, because “deeply penetrated” lol.

    It’s very interesting how Cecilia is acutely aware of her privilege and yet still finds ways to be miserable. She’s such a millennial!

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