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Charlotte Lennox – The Female Quixote

Book Cover

No tilting at windmills, but plenty of running away from ordinary folk who might be out to get you.

Publisher: N/A (The one shown is Oxford University Press)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: June 1752
Date Reviewed: 6th June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Arabella had a solitary childhood; taking up her deceased mother’s book collection, she read widely – or so she thinks. When her uncle and cousins come to stay, they find a a very well composed woman who, as the days go on, is discovered to have gained all her knowledge of life from romance novels which she believes are factual. And whilst admittedly no one will simply tell her the truth, she will not listen to anyone’s misgivings. Her slow entry into society will be full of mishaps and confusion, and the gulf between her knowledge of history and everyone’s will continue to baffle her.

The Female Quixote is a comedy of errors that looks to the romances of centuries prior in a parody of Cervantes’ epic, Don Quixote (1605-1615). Changing the situation to the life a high-born bookish lady, the book is a satire of the work of medieval writers, displaying just how much fiction about the ancient world is different to the then-present day and how reading without context can be a problem. Mostly, though, it’s just a lot of fun – for however much it may or may not have been written to denigrate romantic novels, its focus is on hilarity.

…She gave herself over for lost, and fell back in her chair in a swoon, or something she took for a swoon, for she was persuaded it could happen no otherwise…

The humour is constant – laugh-out-loud, and often very silly. It’s split into a few areas – the humour that comes from Arabella’s solitary musings on what ‘should’, in her mind, be happening at any given time; the humour created by the confusion of her relatives and friends who don’t understand what’s going on because they’ve no knowledge of these supposedly famous historic figures Arabella talks about; the humour that arises from Arabella running away, or thinking she might faint because that’s what ought to happen. The interactions between Arabella and her servant are particularly good, and there’s much mirth to be had in the way that Arabella expects a medieval, no, ancient, sort of courting, which include things no suitor in reality would do.

After a while, the jokes do become a bit too much. Around the late double digit pages, it starts to feel not forced, exactly – because it isn’t – but just drawn out. As with many older text this is where the difference in literary culture becomes particularly apparent – in a slower-paced, 1700s society, the continuation of jokes were likely well-received. (The book was very popular in its day, though its fall from the public sphere was fairly sudden.)

Unfortunately, some of the length of the book is down to the opinion of Samuel Richardson:

‘Richardson… sent suggested revisions to Lennox in response to her being “apprehensive of Matter falling short for two Vols”. Having expanded the novel along the lines suggested by Richardson, by early 1752 Lennox felt that she would need a third volume to complete the novel.’ (Brack and Carlile, 2003)

Richardson wrote on 13th January 1752, telling her,

‘You should finish your Heroine’s cure in the present Vols… the method you propose tho’ it might flatter my Vanity, yet will be thought a contrivance between the Author of Arabella, and the Writer of Clarissa.” He further suggests that by making ‘your present Work as complete as you can, in two Volumes… it will give Consequence to your future writings, and of course to your Name as a Writer.’ Pursuant to completing the novel, Richardson advised Lennox ‘to consult Mr. Johnson before you resolve.’ (Ibid.)

Whilst the first draft was undoubtedly longer than an editor today might suggest, those incorporated suggestions surely made it more so. Indeed there are a couple of occasions where Arabella is on track to be told that everything she has learned is from exaggerated fictional accounts until the author brings in a literary device and quashes the possibility.

So this is where your reason for reading comes into play: the book was written in the 1700s for a 1700s audience (we can assume Richardson was on the ball there). If you’re reading the book to get a sense of literature, and parody, in that period, it’s a lot better than if you’ve picked it up purely for pleasure.

Lennox breaks the fourth wall on a constant basis; the break is as much an element of the book as the parody itself, with Lennox informing the reader of the contents of the chapter ahead, cluing them in as to details her characters are yet to discover, and subtly hinting as to the issues that arise with taking fiction – or rather certain fiction – seriously.

An example of a chapter subtitle: “In which a lover is severely punished for faults which the reader never would have discovered, if he had not been told.” Foreshadowing of the reader’s reality happens constantly and there is irony in the way that Lennox makes sure you know exactly where she is coming from – she wouldn’t want you to become even a little like Arabella! The use of ‘he’ in terms of the reader is perhaps telling – does she think her readers would likely be male? Is she writing directly to Richardson and Samuel Johnson (another person she looked up to)? It’s a cautionary tale – be careful when reading books… but do read this one!

Going back to the denigration of epic romances, one must consider this context as much as they should the parody aspect. By Lennox’s time, romance novels were seen as frivolous and silly:

‘Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote… seems to join a persuasive eighteenth-century effort to dispel as “unreal” and dangerous the romance tradition that English readers had valued for two hundred years.’ (Gordon, 1998)

A turning point in the literary culture in Britain, this idea is heavily supported by Lennox’s text:

…in which, unfortunately for her, were great store of romances, and, what was still more unfortunate, not in the original French, but very bad translations.

One of the reasons the novel can become boring as it continues is Arabella’s need to describe scenes and stories from her books; she comes to realise that few know about the ‘history’ of the ancients as well as she does (rather than question whether she’s got it wrong). This is an occasion where you could ask a person from centuries in the past what a common term meant and they would be able to tell you correctly – what Arabella does is best summed up as ‘splaining.

Of course whether or not Lennox herself ascribed to the notion that romance was frivolous is something we may never know. It could be that for all she wrote in Arabella, it could have been a way to write romance without writing romance.

Literary devices abound in the way the other characters suffer an inability to tell Arabella that what she has read is fiction. Glanville, the cousin/suitor, is often ‘confused’, and this raises two questions: why does Glanville allow the woman he supposedly loves to embarrass herself? And why does he remain interested in her? His sister, Miss (Charlotte) Glanville, despite being presented as spiteful, ends up becoming the most sensible and relatable character in the book, interrupting Arabella’s grand info-dumps; if it weren’t for Lennox’s devices, Miss Glanville would have told Arabella the truth towards the start of their acquaintance… but then, alas!, we would have a novella instead of a novel.

Does your Ladyship consider how late it is? Interrupted Miss Glanville, who had hitherto very impatiently listened to her. Don’t let us keep the gentlemen waiting any longer for us. I must inform you how the prince of Persia declared his love for the incomparable Berenice, said Arabella. Another time, dear cousin, said Miss Glanville; methinks we have talked long enough upon this subject.

If you are expecting a grand ending, whether full of fainting and forsooths or just some reasonable changing of character, you may be disappointed. Whilst over a chapter is spent on a conversation better Arabella and a doctor, the relative suddenness of Arabella’s ‘cure’ is hard to believe and any thoughts you had of seeing Arabella progress in society are not realised in the book. Indeed, the ending was written with Lennox’s mentors firmly in mind:

‘The weakest part of the novel, critics have agreed, is the conclusion and her decision to depart from her usual style to show her esteem for Johnson by an exaggerated imitation of his style was not a good one.’ (Brack and Carlile, 2003)

Brack and Carlile, among others, believe that the penultimate chapter, and part of the last chapter, may actually be the work of Johnson himself. I myself don’t know enough to comment: the chapter is more verbose, dare I say more academically written, perhaps, but then the doctor is obviously a learned character. That the Lady who befriended Arabella – prior to the doctor’s entrance in the novel – with a view to getting her out of her thoughts, didn’t get authorial leave to complete her mission, does suggest in our present day the leaning towards a man having to do it, whether simply Lennox’s choice of a doctor or Johnson taking over.

So, with all this said, is the book worth reading? As said previously, it’s better as a study than an escape. If you want to know about the 1700s without so many of the stereotypes – or at least with the stereotypes used as stereotypes – it’s a good choice. You only need a basic knowledge of Cervantes to enjoy it (though you’ll doubtless find more to appreciate if your knowledge is extensive). You’ll also gain knowledge of another popular 1700s novel, one that is slowly becoming more well-known in our present day. And, of course, you’ll gain a whole heap of knowledge about medieval romances without having to read them, which is a tremendous boon when you consider that the one most referred to is the longest novel published by a mainstream publisher and stands at a whopping 13,095 pages.

But there is one more reason for reading that only becomes apparent once you begin (or, of course, if you’ve heard about it, as you are now): The Female Quixote was a major inspiration (I’d put money on it being the inspiration) for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey; the premise of a reader believing fiction inspires reality, the breaking of the fourth wall in such a similar way, the writing style… even the prefaces of the two books are similar in tone. Lennox’s book isn’t as fun as Austen’s, but if you want to understand the background of Austen’s book, Lennox’s text is one to read. And yes, it’s fascinating that Lennox’s is the one book not mentioned by Austen – perhaps that was taking the intertextuality a little too far. If you want to know the meaning of ‘meta’, ask Austen.

Read this book, just remember one important thing – none of it exists outside the confines of its pages.

References

Brack Jr, O M, and Carlile, Susan, (April 2003) Samuel Johnson’s Contributions to Charlotte Lennox’s “The Female Quixote”, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 77, No. 3-4, pp. 166-173
Gordon, Scott Paul, (1998), The Space of Romance in Lennox’s Female Quixote, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp.499-516.

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