Date of Completion

Spring 5-10-2009

Thesis Advisor(s)

Jean Marsden

Honors Major



English Language and Literature | European History | History | Literature in English, British Isles | Women's Studies


The late eighteenth-century author Frances Burney is best known for popularizing the “comedy of manners,” a literary style later adopted by Jane Austen. Burney’s novels, journals, and plays offer an intriguing commentary on contemporary social customs and etiquette. In particular, she voices the concerns and desires of women, leading scholars to focus on the feminist overtones of her writing. Although she carefully examined female roles in the household and family structure, Burney also provided an insider’s perspective into London high life. As an acclaimed author and member of the royal court, Burney offers a rare insight into the lives of the urban elite. For these reasons, I have chosen to examine three of her works within the context of their London setting.

In Evelina, Cecilia, and The Witlings, Burney examines women’s struggle for independence against the backdrop of the city. These works offer a new interpretation of the female Bildungsroman, or coming of age story. Burney shows how London life influences her heroines’ expectations, ambitions and desires. Evelina’s coming of age centers around the quest for family and social acceptance, while the two Cecilias of Cecilia and The Witlings confront the financial pressures that accompany their inheritance. Ultimately, the three protagonists learn important lessons that are specific to city life. Although Burney concludes each story with the heroine’s marriage, her focus is not on romance, as has been suggested, but on the cultural landscape of the city. Coming of age in her stories is inextricably connected to the diverse challenges and opportunities presented to urban women.