Friday, 18 March 2016

Women, Money & Debt in the 18th Century, Part 8 - Cecilia Pt 2, End of the Series!

Women, Money and Debt in the 18th Century Novel, Part 8:
Cecilia, Section 2

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 trials…

=> In which we discover that even being very rich is not a simple way to be secure, for an unmarried woman in this time period: enter Cecilia, the generous heiress.

Now, let’s see how it all ends up…


                                                                                            Illustration from Cecilia, taken from

From the outset of the novel, Cecilia is presented as a woman of good sense and generosity:

[…] she was not of that inflammable nature which is always ready to take fire, as her passions wee under the control [sic] of her reason, and she suffered not her affections to triumph over her principles. (p.251)

Yet, her going into vast amounts of debt to protect Mrs Harrel and Mrs Harrel’s brother, Mr Arnott, from the consequences of the Harrel’s combined acquisitiveness, has already proved that Cecilia’s principles can bend and break.  In the Delviles’ arena, Cecilia is in even more danger, emotionally and financially, at sea in a world which “bristles with absolute menace”[1].  It is now that the name clause from her uncle’s will begins to wreak havoc.  The Delviles are an old family, who as her guardian Briggs points out, are “counting nothing but uncles and grandfathers, dealing out fine names instead of cash” (p.333); and they are horrified when the nouveau-riche Cecilia appears to be their son’s choice.  As Rogers observes:

Because the man Cecilia wants to marry is the very one for whom sacrificing his surname would be unthinkable, the apparently insignificant name clause ends up controlling the course of her life[2].

The Delvile parents begin to exert a telling pressure on both Mortimer, their son, and Cecilia – and as she is now living in their home, this places her in a horrible position.  She is caught between her respect for Mrs Delvile – who is a good friend, brought up to honour and respect her husband even when she feels he is wrong – and her unwilling love for Mortimer.  She is even more upset when she sees that the pressure on Mortimer is working.  He rails against the clause: “Oh cruel clause!  Barbarous and repulsive clause!  That forbids my aspiring to the first of women, but by an action that with my own family would degrade me forever!” (p.512). Cecilia realises that even family pressure cannot thoroughly explain his rejection of her, noting that “[he is] well enabled to act for himself by the powerful instigation of hereditary arrogance!” (p.515). She angrily concludes, “Well, let him keep his name!  Since it is so wonderful in its properties, […] what presumption in me, to suppose myself an equivalent for its loss!”  (ibid).  Julia Epstein notes that for a woman to retain her maiden name on marrying “contained the seeds of social revolution” for an age “entering upon a period of chaotic transition” as was the late eighteenth century[3]. 

The name clause threatens what the Delvile’s rely on for their ‘good name’ (and property rights): patrilineal succession.  In a way, what Cecilia’s uncle has done, is to subvert that for his own ends: he is using Cecilia as “a conduit for perpetuating himself” and his Beverley name[4].  Susan Staves elaborates this idea, explaining how Cecilia has been used by her uncle:

In the property regimes of patriarchy, descent and inheritance are reckoned in the male line; women function as procreators and as transmitters of inheritance from male to male[5].

Cecilia’s uncle has tried to side step the more usual way of ‘transmitting inheritance’ by the name clause.  For Cecilia, the consequences of fighting for her name would be loneliness; but when she eventually accedes to Mortimer’s cowardly wish for a secret marriage, the consequences are severe:

As long as Cecilia held the borrowed right to the patrilineal name […], she could properly exercise [the] right to reason [that associated with the patriarchal].  But when she forfeits her name to oblivion, by taking that of Delvile, she forfeits that right[6].

If a woman wants to be in the world of men in terms of having her own money, and exerting an influence over even her own life, let alone any further – rules must be abided by.  Cecilia was ‘someone’ as long as she had the money to back up her thoughts, her position.  By signing it away, losing it, and her name…she becomes ‘nobody’, just another woman, used for the purposes women were used for in the period.  This assessment and that above of Cutting-Gray may sound melodramatic, but Cecilia descends into madness at the cycle of events that follow her clandestine marriage, which adds weight to Barbara Zonitch’s pithy comment, that Cecilia is, throughout the novel, “a valuable token of exchange for men”, a chip in the game of male predominance[7].

Cecilia herself is aware she must lose her money to gain her happiness: “Now only had she any chance of being happy herself, when upon the point of relinquishing what all others built their happiness upon obtaining!” (p.826).  Yet during the ceremony, she feels jittery and nervous (p.831), as if aware this is not going to be the happy ending that fiction writers of the era that she might have read, would have her believe.  Patricia Meyer Spacks notes that often, in novels of the time, marriage is posited as a return to the cossetted, indulged charm of childhood; Rogers goes even further, suggesting that nothing less than total fulfilment was promised to women, on giving up their single status[8].  However, Cecilia’s marriage is not to follow this idealised course.

The first thing she loses is the greater part of her original fortune: her uncle’s legacy, which she has negated, by marrying Mortimer, and taking on his name.  The assets of that will, including her house (as she married when no longer under the control of her guardians, having come of age), default to a distant branch of her family, and she is suddenly vastly in debt to a grasping and impatient cousin, Mr Eggleston.  This is a traumatic turn of events for Cecilia.  Simply in marrying, she has contracted another debt: “literalizing the idea that a woman must pay for marriage […] she must pay without receiving any emotional return”[9], that is, without seeing the estate she has tried hard to work with, responsibly and charitably, disposed of to her satisfaction.  She is ordered from her own house by Mr Eggleston; and the longer she delays her departure, even to pack, the more money she will owe him – as she is now under her own roof as a sort of lodger.  He is uninterested in charity, and will bill her for her time there; as (his solicitor explains), the longer she stays, the longer he has to wait to sell the estate and settle his own debts (p.857).  Again, Cecilia is caught up in a web of debt and repayment that she is on the wrong end of and which will cost her dearly.  It is the beginning of a married nightmare:

This unconsciously contracted debt, this hourly charge on her married life, is owed to a stranger who himself does not bear the Beverley name and who apparently plans to exploit the estate to pay off his son’s debts.  It is as if Cecilia suddenly finds herself in debt to a brood of Harrel’s, who are themselves in debt to god knows who…[10]

It is all downhill for Cecilia from here: Mortimer is abroad, and as their marriage is still secret, on being thrown out of her own home (for she dare not stay, with the bill rising, having no longer a fortune to pay the bill with), she has no one to automatically go to as of right, for shelter.  She cries out, heartfelt and confused: “An outcast from her own house, yet received in no other!  A bride, unclaimed by her husband!  An heiress, dispossessed of all wealth!”  (p.869).  Burney emphasizes the paradoxical nature of Cecilia’s position: the words Cecilia cries out highlight “the ephemeral nature of the social role Cecilia has held, while at the same time measuring the effects of [the] social and material loss she suffers”[11]. 

When she mistakenly gets the notion that her friend Belfield and Mortimer are duelling (Mortimer has already had to leave the country once, as a result of a jealous duel with Cecilia’s childhood friend, Monckton), the emotional strain of events overwhelms her, with “her reason suddenly, yet totally, failing her” (p.896).  She begins to hallucinate, terrified by images of Mortimer killed in her imagined duel.  She begins to rush and scream through anonymous streets of London, with people trying to stop her, but to no avail: “she was spoken to repeatedly, she was even caught once or twice by her riding habit; but she forced herself along by her own vehement rapidity, not heeding what was said” (p.897).  Her ‘madness’ – really simply nervous exhaustion – takes the form of “supernatural speed […] darting forward where-ever there was most room, and turning back where there was any obstruction” (ibid.).  This gothic and physical episode is given as an added layer of ironic pathos, by the fact that the eventually exhausted Cecilia stumbles into a pawnshop and collapses.  The owners at first think that she is an escapee from Bedlam, but in a final echo of Gallagher’s summation that Cecilia “owes whatever she owns”, Cecilia is now herself held for reward by the shop owners, when they notice that her clothing, through bedraggled and battered, is expensively cut.  They advertise in the newspapers, tellingly phrasing their advertisement: “Whosoever she belongs to is desired to send after her immediately […] N.B. she has no money about her” (p.901). 

Cecilia has fallen as far as she is to go.  She has almost total amnesia in this state, with no memory of her own past, and only a confused memory of who her husband is, let alone herself.  When Mortimer finds her in this state, he finally understands that his name was not as important as he previously believed it: “His ancient name [was] now sunken in his estimation […] he considered himself the destroyer of this unhappy young creature” (p.912).  The insistent encroachments on her freedom (symbolised both literally and figuratively, by her wealth), and her emotional equilibrium, have left her bereft of more than her name: her very identity is compromised.  Castle astutely views this whole episode, and I concur absolutely, as a sort of purging of Cecilia’s previous identity: “The Heiress […] must die […] a conventional female destiny overtakes the heroine in a way that is at once inexorable and gothically alienating.[12]

Of course, this dramatic state does not last; Cecilia has not been entirely irretrievably harmed, unless the death of her dreams of independence can be considered a mortal wound.  But even when Cecilia recovers her senses and is restored to the love of her new husband, and the care of friends – some gained through her charitable efforts earlier in the book (like Mrs. Hill, an honest working woman owed debts by Harrel); there is no doubt that Cecilia is different.  Her happiness is quieter, more diluted.  She notes that “there are none without misery” (p.941).  Nonetheless, Castle casts her changed expectations and circumstances strongly, going as far as to say that Cecilia has had to give up “the dream of being remarkable”.[13]  This is the case, as Cecilia’s ability to back up any of her ideas with cash, and therefore control and choice, influence, left with her money.  However, there is the small recompense of an aunt of Mortimer’s, who on hearing of her travails, awards her a modest fortune “in admiration of the extraordinary sacrifice she had made” (p.939). 

This restores a small bit of Cecilia’s ability to engage in much smaller charitable acts.  Consequently, despite the loss of both fortunes leaving her unable to be as charitable and world-changing as she would have liked, it is possible to recast the authorial contrivance of this second much smaller fortune being awarded by the aunt.  This small incident makes a point about the fact that some, a very few, women have managed to hold onto their money, and have the power to dispose of it as they wish.  In choosing Cecilia, I think the aunt demonstrates a poetic sort of sisterhood with Cecilia – someone, other than the author and the readers, someone else within the world of commodification and monetary corruption, recognises Cecilia’s attempts at help, and rewards her with the means to do more.

The ending of Cecilia has been a matter of debate ever since it was penned.  Burney herself fought with her relatives about it: she defended her right to what she felt as her moral obligation to create a truer “mixed” ending, against stern – notably male – commands to create a happier one[14].  Critics too, have been undecided about what was achieved with the somewhat downbeat ending (which would have been perfect for a gritty 1970s TV movie!), where Cecilia has “dwindled to a wife”[15], and “bore partial evil with chearfullest [sic] resignation” (p.941).

James Thompson believes that “as a narrative of prey and debt”, Cecilia reinforces the public and private sphere divide that so informed Amelia.  He notes that by creating “a situation of female victimization in the public sphere, followed by safe harbour in the private sphere”, Burney simply reinforced the view that “women are not fully qualified to participate in the system of needs that constitutes civil society – they want the protection of a husband”[16]. Kate Chisholm interprets the matter a small bit closer to my own view, saying that Cecilia “is no mere victim […] although by the end she has suffered too much to enjoy unalloyed bliss, she at least learns that what matters in life is not fortune or social position but true understanding between family and friends.[17]  Nevertheless, I am persuaded that this was important to Cecilia all along; and Chisholm’s appraisal, by proving her right, is simply frustrating.

Nearer to the mark I think, is the achievement of not losing the focus of the novel: Burney makes it clear she will not compromise the portrayal of her heroine – in leaving Cecilia compromised, Burney powerfully keeps the reader in mind of all her travails, even after the book has ended.  If the ending had been a ‘happy ever after’ type, as so many critics and relatives wanted, the sting in the tale of the novel would have been nullified – and so would have the truth for women of her era as Burney saw it.  So that when Castle refers to the novel as containing “a plot of retrograde female disenfranchisement”[18], even bearing in mind the unsubtle addition of the aunt’s legacy (to offset all the trouble caused by the uncle’s) – she would be right.  I think this is what Burney intended.  By standing up to her own relatives on the issue of the ending, she made it clear her heroine’s struggles were to be taken seriously, not forgotten in bliss, not removed or erased, muffled by a cosy closure.  Just as Roxana ventured too far into the male domain and received retribution, and Amelia retired willingly back into the private sphere after a small foray out: Cecilia has too much potential power, and has to be quickly and roughly reinscribed back to the private sphere. 

 Frances Burney in her mid 20s

It is as though her character has shrunk without her fortune, despite its meaninglessness to her except as a way to improve the fates of others; and this is what Epstein is referring to when she states that in Cecilia, Burney is “largely focussed on money as a medium of exchange for her plot, and for her socialist materialist critique”[19].  While it is highly doubtful that the reportedly conservative Burney would have been championing anything as extreme as a ‘socially materialist critique’, there’s absolutely no doubt that money and financial affairs completely dominate the story of Cecilia’s life as we are told it.  And by its ending, the pessimistic message of how dangerous it is for single women out there with money – is undeniable.

A Conclusion to the Series

The three novels are intensely occupied with the struggles of their female heroines to try and command their own destinies; these struggles, I have shown, are inextricably bound up with the need for personal financial control.  All three of the heroines face compromises between love and monetary autonomy, compromises caused by the already ingrained doctrine of the separate spheres.  James Thompson expresses it thus:

[The heroines are constrained by] the whole work of the doctrine of separate spheres, dividing the world in female and male domains, a masculine public sphere dominated by financial exchange and a feminine private sphere dominated by emotional exchange[20].

It is not even that all women need be as rebellious and enterprising as Roxana to feel the harsh rebuke of entering the wrong arena: even Amelia, who is very happy to stay within her subscribed zone has a very obvious problem, for the “paradoxical situation of women” of that century, was that even those “who had no legal access to money were yet held responsible for domestic expenditure[21]”.  On the other hand, her careful frugality and competent financial management mark her as a success within her sphere.  It is the other two females, Roxana and Cecilia, who suffer most harshly as a result of their attempts to participate in the male patriarchal monetary zone.

Roxana is a good example of why men worried about females moving into their sphere: her very success at their own game frightened them.  Ingrid Tague outlines the situation: “significant transformations in financial practices” that focus on “speculative investment” created “fears about the stability of the social order”.  These fears were gendered because “women were amongst the most enthusiastic participants in, and the greatest beneficiaries of, the new investments, and critics of speculation relied heavily on gendered imagery to attack it”[22].  This is exactly the sort of investment that Roxana so delighted in – and was so adept at – that she magnificently increased her fortune under the tutelage of an English banker.  This participation in new investments – a participation represented by Defoe, in Roxana – led to a backlash, trying to reinscribe women back into the private sphere.  This explains why so many of Cecilia’s guardians (especially the rapacious Harrel) resent Cecilia having any control over her own money.  Cecilia’s childhood friend, Monckton, sees it as money she could be spending on him, that he in fact should control: every time she attempts to spend some, he feels his own imagined portion dwindling (pp.297-8, for example).  Her guardian Briggs, believes she should keep all the money for her husband, and refuses to give her any: “keep it for your husband; get you one soon”, he explains (sounding oddly like Yoda), when she asks for money to pay a bill (p.180).  They don’t want to risk Cecilia becoming accustomed to her own monetary control, as this would be bad for future marital prospects:

Since wifely submission was natural, wifely domination [especially in financial matters] was a form of usurpation that could only lead to unhappiness. […]  Any form of independence in a wife threatened this natural subordination; hence the frequent attacks on pin-money for expenses[23].

If pin-money is seen as dangerous, then Roxana’s accumulation of extensive wealth when untethered by male control, must seem threatening indeed.  Her resistance to any further formal liaisons (marriage) until her financial future is secured quite to her liking, is, in view of the chastening account by Tague above, only sensible.

The pressure on women to remain within their proscribed zones was not only latently understood, it was actuated by propaganda: the gendered attack on females attempting to control their money or enter business, is partly why the conduct book market grew so rapidly in the eighteenth-century.  The perceived threat to societal order of this rapacious female investor and unwomanly mercenary wife, had to be replaced by the idealised docile matron “described in every detail, every aspect”[24].  The similarities between this portrait, and the angelic behaviour of Amelia at almost every turn, is notable.  It cannot be by accident that the one protagonist in these three novels who adheres to the norms of the period, is the only one allowed to live happily ever after.  The battles for financial control begin to seem part – a vitally important part – of a wider struggle for women, over general issues of conformity and independence.

I suspect it would be inferring too much to note that chronologically, in order of publication, Roxana (published in 1724) is also, despite having the largest punishment, the most successful of the three women in the male arena.  Likewise, it might be overgeneralising to suggest that the whole mid-eighteenth-century group mind was running so scared at this sort of unwomanliness that such a reactionary vision as Amelia (published in 1751) was the result.  However, it is worrying that the last novel of the period, Cecilia (published in 1782), shows the female protagonist mired still so deeply in convention and the control of others that she can only hope for mediocrity.  It reminds us that women were constrained from several different directions: Roxana is able to be successful (after a fashion, and not forgetting the incredible cost – the loss of children) because she has already fallen out of her birth rank, and is then freed from marital constraints as well – to operate from a position of outsider, which makes her stronger.  Amelia and Cecilia, on the other hand, are firmly embedded within their respective lower- and upper-middle class stratas. It leaves the reader with a confusing dichotomy: to be successful materially, or even to have a trace of control, a woman must be prepared to step right outside her class and gender roles: she must be prepared to pay a high price.  But conversely, Amelia, such a still and small person, is the happiest in the end.  I think the novels make clear that Amelia is the only one allowed to be happy, because she is the one woman depicted, who does not attempt to be or remain in the public sphere, managing money or controlling her choices and destiny in any way.


[1] Julia Epstein, The Iron Pen: Fanny Burney and the Politics of Women’s Writing (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p.155.
[2] Kay Rogers, ‘Deflation of Male Pretensions in Fanny Burney’s Cecilia’, in Women’s Studies, 15 (1988), pp.87-96, here p.42.
[3] Epstein, p.157.
[4] Betty Rizzo, Revising Women: Eighteenth-Century Women’s Fiction and Social Engagement (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), p.84.
[5] Susan Staves, Married Women’s Separate Property in England, 1660-1883 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), p.4.
[6] Joanne Cutting-Gray, Woman as ‘Nobody’ and the Novels of Fanny Burney (Gainseville: University Press of Florida, 1992), p.41.
[7] Barbara Zonitch, Familiar Violence: Gender and Social Upheaval in the Novels of Frances Burney (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997), p.70.
[8] Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination: A Literary and Psychological Investigation of Women’s Writing (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1976), p.129; and further, Rogers, p.64.
[9] Catherine Gallagher, Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820 (Berkley:University of California Press, 1995), p.244.
[10] Gallagher, p.245.
[11] Katherine Sobba Green, The Courtship Novel, 1740-1820 (Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1991), p.88.
[12] Terry Castle, Masquerade and Civilisation: The Carnivalesque in Eighteeth-Century English Culture and Fiction (London: Methuen and Company, 1986), p. 276.
[13] Castle, p.284.
[14] Rogers, p.463; also Margaret Anne Doody, Frances Burney: The Life in the Works (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Brunswick University Press, 1988), p.145-6.
[15] Millamont, quoted in Rogers, p.63.
[16] James Thompson, Models of Value: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy and the Novel (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), pp.158-9.
[17] Kate Chisholm, Fanny Burney: Her Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 1998), p.101.
[18] Castle, p.283.
[19] Epstein, p.158.
[20] Thompson, p.156.
[21] Edward Copeland, Women Writing About Money: Women’s Fiction in England, 1790-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.1.
[22] Ingris H. Tague, ‘Love, Honor and Obedience: Fashionable Women and the Discourse of Marriage in the Early Eighteenth-Century’, in Journal of British Studies, University of Chicago Press, January 2001, Vol. 40, No.1, pp76-106 (p.79).
[23] Tague, p.86.
[24] Margeret Somerville, Sex and Subjection: Attitudes to Women in Early-Modern Society (London and New York: St. Martins Press, 1995), pp.174, 217.

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