Women, Money and Debt in the 18th Century Novel, Part 7:
Cecilia, Section 1
Looking at the prevailing obsession with money, the getting and managing of it (and what happens when you can’t pay your debts), in eighteenth century English literature – with specific reference to female heroines in Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724); Henry Fielding’s Amelia (1751), and Fanny Burney’s Cecilia (1782).
So: Amelia triumphed against the seemingly insurmountable odds, and through a sale, through engaging in trade…But what happens to a single woman, alone, who has an awful lot of money? Surely life will be better, and far more insulated for her? Surely she has all the advantages that a desperate though clever woman (Roxana) lacked? Or that a poor wife dependent on an irresponsible man (Amelia) had not? No. Cecilia’s trials show that even having money can be a web so sticky that soon she has no independence at all. Even having money is no defence against the rules of society at the time. By the end of Cecilia’s story, you may well end up convinced, as I did, that a woman in those times needed to be both as clever and ruthless as Roxana; as married as poor gentle Amelia (just for camouflage), and as rich as Cecilia. No point having the money if you can’t hold it and use it to shape your life…Here comes the sad economic tale of Cecilia…who would have done better as a widow, which is a bit sad. (And long live feminism!)
And just in case you’re a trifle lost – here are the earlier posts in this series:
=> that’s the Introduction and Abstract to this mammoth undertaking!
=> that’s Roxana, Part 1…in a galaxy far far…etc…
=> that’s the last part of Roxana’s story and it’s analysis.
=> the first part of Amelia’s experiences: her husband is put in debtor’s prison.
=> how Amelia survives as a married woman but without protection for herself and her children, in a cruel and corrupt city.
=> and how Amelia finally achieves a happy ending, after all her trails…
Ok, let’s go!
Money is foregrounded absolutely in Cecilia. As Catherine Gallagher points out, “we do not often fear for Cecilia, but we are kept in a perpetual state of anxiety about her money”. She begins the novel an heiress (with two legacies), and the progress of the plot centres on her money and how much control she has over it. She dreams of grand schemes for her fortune (much like Dorothea Brooke in the later Middlemarch), wanting to help the poor and act as a responsible benefactress. But from the outset she is undermined and hindered by men seeking her money (for example, her childhood friend Monckton; each of her three guardians; and sundry fortune-hunting aristocrats, such as Floyer). The insidious cumulative effects of debt also gradually drain her (how modern that sounds). The way the novel manages to convey the confusion in situation between charitable object (be they worthy or unworthy), creditor and debtor, shows how easily the lines can be blurred, when it comes to trying to do good with money. In addition, Burney conveys through Cecilia’s experiences, the impossibility of a woman with money being valued as anything other than a commodity to be made use of by men. These same men also believe she is incapable of managing her own pin-money, let alone manage her fortune on any real scale (which is what Cecilia dreamed of: a local net of charitable aid she could control and distribute).
Cecilia’s real problem – as if those stated already were not peril enough – proves to be love. Because of a clause in her uncle’s will (the larger of the two legacies), Cecilia is required to keep her maiden name on marriage, with her husband expected to adopt the patronym. If this condition is not adhered to, she will lose the entire inheritance. Cecilia manages to fall in love with a poor aristocrat whose family is not only desperate for money, but also proud and determined to keep their family name. The action of Cecilia traces the death of Cecilia’s dreams of charity and independence, caused by her own generosity and the interference of her guardians. She eventually marries the poor aristocrat, Mortimer Delvile, with Burney concluding the book with her heroine battered by circumstance, much poorer, and ethically compromised. I intend to illustrate how monetary obsession informs every aspect of the plot as it relates to Cecilia’s fate, and most of the main character’s interactions with her, showing that her good nature combined with her money, never really had a chance in this rapacious urban environment.Cecilia and Mortimer Delvile from Cecilia by Fanny Burney (1825); Image from: www.regencyhistory.net
Cecilia is forced into London from her retirement in the country, by her uncle’s stipulation that until she reaches her majority, she must stay with one of three guardians he has appointed her: any use she makes of her legacy until she is of age, must be approved of by at least one of them. She is almost immediately placed in a difficult position, as she cannot have even small amounts of pin-money for living expenses without resorting to credit, as she has no actual cash. Hence, when she buys herself some books – and she does not spend much money on herself, preferring to live frugally – she must ask one of her guardians, the parsimonious Briggs, for the money to pay the credit bill. His response is typical: “‘Books?’ he cried, ‘what do you want with books? Do no good; all lost time; words get no cash’” (p.181). When Cecilia tries to explain, her words go unheard – and her bill unpaid. As Katherine M. Rogers points out, she can rarely get any of her guardians to listen to her point of view, until they have finished “expressing their egos”, even assuming she has a right to a view on how to dispose of her own money, does not appear to occur to them. Indeed, being an heiress guarantees her neither autonomy nor self-determination. It merely
Guarantees others will attempt to dominate her. […] To clear a space for self-determination, [she] must reject male consumerism or commodification, resisting the authoritative infringements of guardians, suitors and society.
Terry Castle records that “Cecilia is the object of a collective economic fixation” – most of the men in the novel (Monckton, all three of her guardians, Floyer, Morrice, even her mentor in charity, Albany), view her in terms of what she can provide for them, and how she can further their aims. An example illustrating this well, is the occasion the Harrels decide to throw a masquerade (which Cecilia feels is another occasion for the Harrels to “wantonly accumulate debts” [p.103]). Monckton, who wishes to marry her, and Briggs, who believes that anyone other than a husband he chooses for Cecilia himself is bound to be a villain, express clear opinions about Cecilia’s presence, her money and whose job it is to spend it. Monckton can only show his sexual and economic aggression and possessiveness while in disguise at the masquerade, but his hemming of her in, so she can interact with no one else is a very telling way of protecting his investment in his future, as he sees her (p.115). Similarly, Briggs’s appearance at the masquerade shows him more earnest to guard Cecilia’s fortune than her person; and his direct comments on her freedom and her fortune, give away much as to Cecilia’s illusory monetary independence:
[Briggs stumbles over Monckton in disguise and says ‘What’s this black thing? Don’t like it; looks like the devil. You shan’t stay with it; carry you away; take care of you myself. […] Never set your heart on a fine outside; nothing within. Bristol stones won’t buy stock: only wants to chouse [OED: to dupe] you. (p.119).
Judy Simons comments that men frequently misvalue women in the novel:
Men are seen as dehumanizing women, reducing them to commodities, objects of pleasure or means of income, and it is in such a context that Cecilia must struggle to assert her sense of personal value.
This was “the age of the fortune-hunting husband”, as Kay Rogers has so plainly put it, and Cecilia is further hampered from trying to live her life and dispose of her money as she chooses by the almost constant attention, in the first half of the novel, of Sir Robert Floyer. He pursues her with such naked ambition, he seems to believe her already his property: “[he viewed her with] the scrutinising observation of a man on the point of making a bargain, who views with fault-seeking eyes the property he means to cheapen” (p.34). Cecilia detests him, intensely disliking his “successful brutality” (p.150), but discovers much later in the narrative, that Harrel, her guardian, actually tried to sell her in marriage to Floyer – hence Floyer’s behaving with so much more familiarity than was warranted by her behaviour to him (p.433).
Cecilia’s battle to use her money as she sees fit, without infringement by her guardians, is fought throughout the novel on the issue of her charity. She makes clear from early in the novel, that she feels “her affluence […] as a debt contracted with the poor, and her independence, as a tie upon her liberality to pay it with interest” (p.55). She expresses it thus: “Who should assist the poor if I do not? Rich, without connections; powerful, without wants; upon whom have they any claim if not me?” (p.129). This is the first blurring of the line between the usual understanding of debt, as money contractually owed between one lending party, and another receiving party; and Cecilia’s rather older and feudal understanding of it. She wants to do good with her wealth, and frequently fantasizes about it. Her schemes are quite elaborate, but somehow vague: “In her sleep she bestowed riches, and poured plenty on the land; she humbled her oppressor, she exalted the oppressed; slaves were raised to dignities…” (p.711). Gallagher notes that this vagueness is possibly due to the fact that by this point in the novel Cecilia is starting to see the futility of her attempts to control her fate by her fortune: it is symbolic that in her dream she can only stand back and watch herself act, she is not simply being the figure she sees. Somehow, inside herself, she knows this large-scale dream is not to be, that it can only ever be playacting. Earlier in the novel, Cecilia felt free to dream far more coherently: proposing to herself an entire scheme of living that would be graceful, educational and filled only with people who share her charitable aspirations (pp.102-3); and based solidly on her own right to her property (p.55). She is forced rather quickly to compromise this dream, as it leaves her lonely and unsatisfied:
Finding the error into which her ardour of reformation had hurried her, and that a rigid seclusion from company was productive of a lassitude as little favourable to active virtue as dissipation itself, she resolved to soften her plan […] by mingling amusement with benevolence. (p.131)
However, amusement in the city is very different to Cecilia’s modest country pastimes. From very early in the book, amusements are shown to be monetarily based, involving general avariciousness, or else acquisition at someone else’s expense. Two early examples are indicative of the environment of rapaciousness that Cecilia inhabits. The sort of people Cecilia has to interact with in the city, are the like of the grasping Miss Larolles, in whose company, even shopping for a necessary hat becomes a lesson in excess:
[in the house of the milliner] the raptures of Miss Larolles were again excited: she viewed the finery displayed with delight inexpressible [and] sighed with all the bitterness of mortification that she was unable to order home almost everything she looked at. (p.29)
Barely a day later, the same voluble Miss Larolles is trying to get Cecilia to accompany her for a sale of a bankrupt’s house contents. This is quite normal entertainment for her set, and a cause for crowds to flock, gawping and buying bargains:
O but do go, for I assure you it will be the best sale we shall have this season. […] I hear the creditors have seized everything […] they have taken those beautiful buckles out of her shoes! […] It is quite shocking, upon my word. I wonder who’ll buy them. […] But come, if we don’t go directly, there will be no getting in. (pp.31-2)
A scene of dissipation, similar to what Cecilia increasingly finds at the Harrels, before their bankruptcy and his suicide. This, the famous: The Tête-à-Tête, from Marriage à-la-mode, William Hogarth
The very normality of this event foreshadows what is to come, as ironically, in due course, the contents of Cecilia’s guardian Harrel’s house are also auctioned to pay his debts – with Miss Larolles and various other society figures in attendance. Cecilia misses the whole incident, which lasts several days, and is only apprised of it later (pp.444-5, 600-1). Simons perspicaciously observes that this initial incident of casual opportunism at the house sale establishes “the climate” of the novel, “pointing [to] the fragility of economic survival”, with the “heroine’s story […] set against the background of a society dominated by economic issues.”
Cecilia soon has far more experience of the sort of frenzied acquisition based on credit than she wishes, for when she makes the decision to live with her guardian Mr Harrel, as she used to be childhood friends with his wife, she finds herself plunged into a world run on a “haemorrhage of expense”. She soon realises that not everyone views luxury with as disinterested an eye as she does, being brought up to “regard continual dissipation as an introduction to vice, and unbounded extravagance as the harbinger of injustice” (p.32). She begins to worry for Mrs Harrel, whom she can see is
Dazzled by the brilliance of her situation; greedily, therefore, she had soon no pleasure but to vie with some rival in elegance, and no ambition but to exceed some superior in expence [sic]. (p.33)
Of course, no income can keep pace with a couple set on keeping up with everyone else, and soon Cecilia finds out matters are far worse than she feared. Harrel is in debt for the building of an extra home, Violet-Bank (p.104), and when Cecilia tries to remonstrate with Mrs Harrel over the endless extras the couple plan for it, the logic of “an addict of credit” is Mrs Harrel’s defence:
I don’t know how it is, one’s bills mount up before one is aware…I hardly know what I have had [from this tradesman], and yet he has run me up a bill of between three and four hundred pound. (p.174)
Cecilia is horrified, and fears Mr Arnott, her new friend (Mrs Harrel’s brother), will end up in debt too. Thus, now blurring the line between trying to ease the situation of her childhood friend and her new friend by a charitable favour, and ending up a debtor herself – she proposes to pay the bill. However, none of her guardians (other than Harrel, who is of course, only too willing) will allow her to be advanced such a large sum of money. It is by this means that a moneylender is suggested, and Cecilia becomes embroiled in increasing debt. She is reluctant, feeling “that horror natural to all unpractised minds at the first idea of contracting a voluntary debt” (p.189). But she is overcome by her own good nature and desire to help a friend. The financial situation worsens very quickly, with Harrel soon beside himself. Creditors begin to invade the house (“– Did you not see them? – Do they not line the hall? –“, Harrel cries [p.265]), demanding “some thousand pounds perhaps” (ibid.). Again to save her friend Mr Arnott further personal debt, she engages with the moneylender herself. In this way, her paternal fortune is completely wiped out, single-handedly, by Harrel, her supposed guardian – she pays a total of £10,000 eventually (p.766). Cecilia tries to be philosophical about the loss of the money: “nothing, therefore remains, but that I try to forget I was ever richer!” (p.297)
There are two important issues raised here. Firstly, it has increasingly come to be recognized by critics that Burney was not merely dramatizing a credit and debt problem affecting a small and reckless part of the population, but that this was a far more widespread problem and phenomenon. Randall McGowen summarizes the new literary historical research findings thus: “[most modern critics] accept the arguments that the new credit arrangements profoundly transformed society […] its culture and psychology”. Catherine Ingrassia elaborates, less neutrally, that “the growth of speculative investment” and household credit, is symptomatic of a wider social problem”. As shown in the Amelia analysis, credit affected vast swathes of the population, both urban and rural, and of all classes. Craig Muldrew has established beyond doubt the far-reaching importance of credit since 1690:
From the late sixteenth century, England was very active as a market culture in which profit, price, credit and bargains were a constant concern for most households on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
Cecilia is swimming against the tide of credit that is carrying her in its wake, against her better judgement. As Markman Ellis has noted, “it is often the mutability of money and paper credit that has led to the misfortunes of the characters [in Cecilia] in the first place”. The sympathy of this statement is difficult to apply to the limp-willed Harrels, who were unwilling “to separate their private lives from their public desires”, that is, their strong wishes for social status. Yet Ellis’s “mutability of credit” affects Cecilia hugely; her own charitable dreams have been somehow funnelled awry: in desiring to save a friend from the reckless behaviour of another, she has lost an entire fortune.
This leads us to the second point. Cecilia is not a controlling pragmatist like Roxana, or Miss Mathews. On the other hand, she is not as meek as Amelia: nevertheless, somehow her modest dreams were rebuffed constantly. There is an underlying theme in Cecilia, which explains the consistent frustration of her desires. Gallagher refers to it as “the ceaseless circulation and unpayable debt” that runs through the life of Cecilia: that “she owes whatever she owns”. Castle characterises it as the largest theme in the novel, “the profound psychological theme of repayment”. Though so far, Cecilia has only lost money, which to her “has long appeared worthless and valueless” (p.706), when the Harrels affairs come to their almost operatically manic conclusion, with his public suicide (his suicide note proclaiming that all debts are “To be paid tonight with a BULLET” [p.430]), Cecilia is also made homeless. When she goes to stay with one of her other guardians, Delvile, her troubles only increase. For this is the proud father of the penniless aristocrat that Cecilia has reluctantly fallen in love with. It is now that Cecilia “will pay, with her [remaining] fortune, for the dubious pleasure of enacting a merely conventional plot of heterosexual romance”.
Portrait of Fanny Burney by Edward Francis Burney (c. 1784-85)
And that’s where we’ll leave her today. Poorer, but not as poor as she’s going to be. The next instalment of Women and Debt in the Novels of the Eighteenth Century is the last (*sniffle*), so I hope you’ll tune in to be perplexed at how badly it goes for her, and mutter about how it’s not much different now, and how we should all have access to credit unions as they are far more ethical than our corrupt banks, and what a good thing there’s more feminism about now, etc etc etc. See you next time!
 Catherine Gallagher, Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p.238.
 Frances Burney, Cecilia (Oxford: Oxford University press, this edn 1999), pp.55,711. [All further references to this edition are placed within the main text in parentheses.]
 Katherine M. Rogers, Frances Burney: The World of ‘Female Difficulties’ (New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990), p.45.
 Katherine Sobba Green, The Courtship Novel, 1740-1820 (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1991), p.81.
 Terry Castle, The Masquerade and Civilisation: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth Century English Culture and Fiction (London: Methuen and Company, 1986), p.275.
 Judy Simons, Fanny Burney (Hampshire and London: Macmillan, 1987), p.66.
 Kay Rogers, ‘Deflation of Male Pretentions in Fanny Burney’s Cecilia’, in Women’s Studies, 15 (1988), pp.87-96 (p.92).
 Catherine Keohane, ‘ “Too Neat for a Beggar”: Charity and Debt in Burney’s Cecilia, in Studies in the Novel, pp.379-401 (p.379).
 Gallagher, p.235.
 Simons, pp.66.65.
 Gallagher, p.247.
 Grant D. Campbell, ‘Fashionable Suicide: Conspicuous Consumption and the Collapse of Credit in Fanny Burney’s Cecilia’, in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 20 (1990), pp.131-45 (p.140).
 Randall McGowen, ‘Credit and Culture in Early Modern England’, in Journal of British Studies, University of Chicago Press (Jan 2002), Vol 41, No.1, pp.120-131 (p.121).
 Catherine Ingrassia, Authorship, Commerce and Gender in Early Eighteenth-Century England: A Culture of Paper Credit (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p.1.
 Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (London: Macmillan Press, 1998), p.59.
 Markman Ellis, The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp.134-5.
 Gallagher, pp.205, 208.
 Castle, p.277.