Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Too Neat for a Beggar": Charity and Debt in Burney's Cecilia

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Too Neat for a Beggar": Charity and Debt in Burney's Cecilia

Article excerpt

Newly arrived in London, the eponymous heroine of Frances Burney's second novel, Cecilia (1782), soon rejects the fashionable life of dissipation practiced by her guardian Harrel and his wife, devising in its place a "scheme of happiness" that considers her own fulfilment as well as "what was due from her to the world." (1) Charity and debt, two complex concepts in the late eighteenth century, shape the heiress's scheme in both anticipated and unexpected ways. A central component of the plan, serving as "an agent of Charity," combines pleasure and an understanding of social duty that, reminiscent of older models of aristocratic hospitality and spiritual indebtedness, considers social obligations a debt: "A strong sense of DUTY, a fervent desire to ACT RIGHT, were the ruling characteristics of her mind: her affluence she therefore considered as a debt contracted with the poor, and her independence, as a tie upon her liberality to pay it with interest" (pp. 56, 55). Debt inflects Cecilia's charity in more subtle and insidious ways, however, complicating certain instances of giving. For, in attempting to honor this "debt with the poor," Cecilia's practice of charity is tested by newer understandings of the debt not of social obligation, but of consumer spending. Thus, while charity and debt might seem most obviously to intersect in the figure of the distressed debtor in need of charity, in Cecilia Burney reveals their deeper interconnectedness, exposing the ways in which debt disrupts charity by surprisingly re-doubling it.

These complications are exemplified by two ostensibly different relationships in the novel: Cecilia's assistance of the tradesman's wife, Mrs. Hill; and her financial entanglements with her impoverished, yet still high-living guardian Harrel. In both cases, Cecilia misreads appeals to her generosity, thinking Mrs. Hill pleads for charity, not the wages Harrel owes her husband, while failing to recognize that Harrel's requests for loans involve her in a perverted form of charitable debt relief. Although James Thompson, in his study of the novel and political economy, observes that "the female economy of Cecilia oscillates between the horrors of debt and the pleasures of charity," this apparent balance is deceptive. Thompson argues that "[w]hile [Cecilia] runs through one fortune paying the Harrels' dubious debts, she extends the other half of her fortune more appropriately in charity," but we will see that Cecilia's charity to Mrs. Hill is forced by the "horrors of debt," while paying off Harrel's debts entails "inappropriate" charity. (2) This unexpected mingling of charity and debt makes these seemingly incidental relationships central to the novel as a whole, as they illustrate how Cecilia's noble understanding of her social obligations and her grand plans of benevolence are undercut by the contemporary world of credit and debt, a world which privileges appearance and self-interest above duty and fairness. Eighteenth-century conceptions of charity and debt, then, are crucial to understanding Cecilia.

While the novel's love plot, complicated by the name provision attached to the heroine's landed estate, has been the subject of much critical notice, also worth close attention is Burney's depiction of a young woman struggling to meet her social duties-struggling not for lack of means, but due to complications produced by the normalization of indebtedness. Accordingly, while a great deal of the later twentieth century's renewed interest in Burney was channeled into biographical criticism, often focusing on her first novel, Evelina, I propose to consider Cecilia in the larger social context of the late eighteenth century, specifically with respect to anxieties about charity and debt. (3) While seeking in part to contribute to a broadening of Burney studies, this essay's main project is to investigate how Cecilia's preconceptions about charitable giving are tested by the unexpected instability of the positions of debtor and creditor, giver and receiver. …

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