'A Philosophical Gossip': Science and sociability in Frances Burney's Cecilia

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Publication details

JournalEighteenth-Century Life
DateAccepted/In press - 19 Mar 2018
DatePublished (current) - 2018
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)73-93
Original languageEnglish


In Frances Burney’s second novel, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782), the social taxonomist Mr. Gosport educates the protagonist in the ways of the bon ton by applying classificatory principles to metropolitan polite society. This article argues that Gosport’s methodology derives principally from the discourse of Linnaean taxonomy, with which Burney was familiar primarily through the personal tutelage of the botanist Daniel Solander (a social acquaintance of her father Charles, and a professional contact of her brother James). Ultimately, taxonomic discourse supplied Burney with a vocabulary with which to express anxieties about her place in an increasingly stratified and hierarchized print marketplace. Her eventual rejection of taxonomic sociability in Cecilia replicates her resistance to literary classification, and points towards a desire to be accounted, as she wrote to her sister Susan, “quelque chose extraordinaire.”

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