Tully’s the fashion : Ciceronian fame in Frances Burney’s Cecilia
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Across a festively lit drawing room at a fashionable London masquerade, the eponymous heroine of Frances Burney’s Cecilia (1782) catches sight of a man dressed in Ciceronian costume. She identifies him as the famous Roman statesman by his toga and “consular dignity.” At first glance, this brief scene is utterly forgettable because, as Peter Gay has noted, Cicero today is “at best an interesting politician and a master of a certain Latin style; at worst he is a bore or an unknown.” A closer look, however, reveals not only Burney’s deep awareness of Cicero’s significance as a “culture hero” but also her and her contemporaries’ complex relationship with his legacy. By the time of Cecilia’s publication, Cicero is no longer simply the purview of pedants and politicians but is famous to a wider London public. The popular desire to be like Tully, as he was frequently and affectionately referred to during this period, newly manifested itself in material culture, as it had become the height of fashion for his name and face to appear not only in books but also on jewelry, clothing, shop signs, and home décor. It was also during this era that Cicero’s character came under scrutiny: readers had begun to notice that Cicero’s public persona in his orations and treatises was far more virtuous than how he appears in his private correspondence. As Burney’s portrait of the masquerader reveals, her own attitude towards Cicero’s fame was equally complex: while she shared her culture’s admiration for Tully, she had misgivings about those like the Ciceronian Frenchman for whom that emulation was an affectation and an opportunity for celebrity mongering. I argue that Burney exposes her society’s affectation of Ciceronian virtue, an affectation that mirrors Cicero’s own hypocritical self-fashioning. By presenting the reader with a heroine who, like Cicero, strives for virtue and is ambitious of the fame virtue enables, the novel can be seen as a meditation on the nature of ambition itself and whether, if even those who seem to understand virtue best are undone by their desire for fame, ambition and virtue can exist simultaneously.