Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 July 2019
Frances Burney and Jane Austen both wrote their era’s definitive marriage plot novels, yet it is obvious that their heroine-centred courtship fiction stands at a distance from Fielding, Goldsmith and Shebbeare’s clerical and gentlemanly fictions – and even from Richardson’s Pamela. Most strikingly, proper ceremony holds no interest for Austen and Burney. In their novels conjugal attachment does not express Anglican piety or natural law; rather it promotes a literary subjectivity firmly aligned with moral virtue (and very often at odds with the commercial public sphere). Austen’s courtship narratives are widely regarded as a high point of the ‘serious’ modern realist novel, understood precisely as a secular literary mode. To acknowledge Burney and Austen’s departures from their Anglican and Patriot predecessors is not to forget the legacy that shapes their work; it is, instead, to notice that in their hands the English marriage plot undergoes a profound and enduring transformation.