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This essay reads Frances Burney’s Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782) alongside the debates surrounding the 1753 Clandestine Marriages Act in order to show how the novel responds to and participates in one of the most divisive public controversies of the Enlightenment. In doing so, the essay challenges the view of Burney as a conservative defender of patriarchal culture, while highlighting the balances that she strikes between individual freedom and filial duty. The novel criticizes secret matches not only because they challenge the legitimate authority of parents and guardians, but also because they enable men to undermine women’s consent. Burney is keenly aware that parents and guardians sometimes abuse their authority, but she ultimately affords them considerable control over marriage: Cecilia suggests that all couples—even those over the age of majority—ought to obtain the approval of parents or guardians before they wed.
While the novel imaginatively extends the reach of the Act, however, it offers a subtle critique of the patriarchal principle that underwrites this law. In Cecilia, Burney shows the dangers of turning marriage into an exchange between men. Shifting the locus of authority from Cecilia’s guardian and prospective father-in-law to her prospective mother-in-law, Burney highlights the importance of maternal as well as paternal consent. She also affirms Cecilia’s own agency in the negotiation of her union with Mortimer and even hints at Cecilia’s autonomy as a wife. In the bequest that Mrs. Delvile’s sister leaves Cecilia when she dies and the change that Mortimer undergoes after Cecilia’s illness, the novel offers a model of marriage as an affective agreement between two equal agents.