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Cecilia begins with death of the heiress's uncle, the Dean, with whom she has been living, four weeks before the narrative starts. The Dean has appointed three guardians who will look after Cecilia's affairs during her minority: the spendthrift Mr Harrel, the parsimonious Mr Briggs, and the haughty Mr Delvile. All of the guardians are unknown to her, so she chooses to live in London with Mr Harrel, as he is the husband of her close friend, Priscilla. Priscilla is an impressionable unthinking woman who assists her husband in pressuring Cecilia to borrow money against her inheritance in order to pay his gambling debts and to fund their extravagant lifestyle. Harrel increasingly comes up with ingenious ways to make Cecilia feel obliged to pay him, including the threat of suicide. Priscilla's brother, Mr Arnottt, is also imposed upon by the Harrels for money. Cecilia is also advised by Mr Monckton, whose wife, Lady Margaret, dislikes Cecilia because she is young and beautiful. Lady Margaret, who married Mr Monckton when she was 67 and is infirm and asthmatic, also suspects that Mr Monckton, a young man, is hoping to marry Cecilia after she dies. He gives Cecilia good advice, but his advice is always colored by this aim. Cecilia and her acquaintance attend an opera rehearsal at which Mr Albany, an eccentric religious man, warns her that she is in danger of being surrounded by people who will exploit her. At the end of Book I, Cecilia realizes how unfeeling Mr Harrel is when she encounters Mrs Hill, the wife of Mr Harrel's carpenter, outside their house. Initially Cecilia tries to give Mrs Hill a gift of money as charity, but Mrs Hill explains that she just wants her bill to be paid as her husband is unwell, having fallen off his ladder, and they have lost their son Billy to consumption. Mrs Hill has been sent away empty-handed many times, and asks Cecilia to intercede. Mr Harrel asks his brother-in-law, Mr Arnott to lend him the money to pay the bill.

At the beginning of Book II, Cecilia decides that she must leave the Harrels' house, and she visits Mr Delvile. Delvile is so rude that she realizes she could not live with his family. In spite of their financial troubles, the Harrels hold a grand masquerade at their home. Mr Briggs turns up as a chimney sweep, and people are offended that he has used real soot. Cecilia is accosted by a masked character dressed as the Devil (Monckton in disguise) who won't let any men near Cecilia. A mysterious white domino takes care of Cecilia, protecting her from the worst advances of the masked Devil. The evening ends in chaos when a harlequin (Mr Morrice) attempts to jump across the dessert table and brings the awning down, plunging the room into darkness. After an opera performance, an argument between Mr. Belfield and Sir Robert Floyer over who has the honor of assisting Cecilia into her carriage leads to a duel. Shocked at their violent behavior, Cecilia cries out and stops Floyer from attacking Belfield at the opera; this show of compassion leads the public to believe that Cecelia is secretly in love with Sir Robert. The duel takes place, and Belfield is wounded. Cecelia visits Mr. Delvile again and is introduced to his son, who has admired her from afar, and to Mrs. Delvile. Young Delvile admires Ceciliaand they become friends, though Cecilia is conscious of the Delvile family's preoccupation with rank in society. The Book ends with Cecilia's concern for Mr Belfield's health.

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