This article argues that Frances Burney's long, diffuse works of fiction develop an ethics of accident within the history of the novel. Whereas critics from the eighteenth century to today have privileged “art”—in the sense of careful, deliberate skill and conduct—as a crucial marker of human character, Burney insists on filling her novels with a succession of unexpected events and a multitude of characters surprised by their own actions. By refusing to treat accident as a mistake to be improved upon—in the realm of either characterological conduct or authorial craft—Burney posits an ethics of the novel that treats matters of chance and modes of depleted agency as central aspects of the human condition rather than as markers of moral or aesthetic failure. Setting Burney's texts within ascendant modes of economy and finance in the eighteenth century, the article suggests that this ethics marks a key change within the rise of the novel that continues well into late capitalism.

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