It is a known fact that novelist Jane Austen looked upon Frances Burney for inspiration. Austen must have recognized the genius of this late-18th Century female writer, and whether or not she ever matched Burney's multi-faceted quality is still an open question.
On the surface, this is the tale of Miss Cecilia Beverley, a young, beautiful and wealthy heiress looking for the suitable match - hardly an original theme. But under this veil, there is the dramatic genius of a novelist whose characters impersonate the virtues and vices of her time in vivid tones much more reminiscent of Dickens than of Austen.
Miss Beverley's path to love and marriage winds its way through a series of circumstances, most of which are engendered by her agenda-driven acquaintances, guardians, friends and false-friends. From a dramatic perspective, the pace is quick, and the reader's emotions are immediately engaged for Cecilia - a fresh yet not prudish heroine whose temperate virtues never degenerate into the caricaturesque. Will she find love, or will she succumb to the many traps laid before her? The reader will find many good twists in this regard!
An acute observer of human nature, Burney populates her novel with personality-types that are as current today as they were then - from the regretful young man who married into money in a haste to the empty-headed socialite with more wealth than sense. However, the author never presents these characters from a moralizing position - and her implied judgment of some of the characters never borders on the proselytizing. Drama is always kept alive by highly dynamic scenes (I don't want to give anything away, but I assure you that they are good) and by lots of tension between characters.
The daughter of a famed musicologist, Dr. Burney, the author manages to weave the thread of her own views on aesthetics, which she does tastefully and unintrusively adding a wonderful dimension to the story. At times you feel like you are sitting at a fashionable dinner-table hearing duscussions about the relative merits of Handel's music versus Italian opera.
In all, this remains one of my favorite novels. Although the book is relatively long, the good writing, captivating plot and the tasty character-studies make the read quick and intense. Also, Burney never indulges in lengthy descriptions, off-stage scenes or other tracts that would otherwise slow down the good pace of the story for the modern reader. As a matter of fact, I loved this book and its author so much that I purchased the original 1781 edition.
As an interesting aside, Frances Burney's biography makes in itself an interesting novel. She grew up in a culturally-fertile environment, became and expatriate who married a Frenchman in the height of the trouble-years between England and France, and survived a mastectomy without anesthetic to live well into her eighties.
Why she is not better known as an author and a great personality remains a mystery to me.