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Charlotte Lennox – The Female Quixote

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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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Weike Wang – Chemistry

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In all its forms.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 209
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-60367-5
First Published: 23rd May 2017; 31st May 2018 by Text Publishing
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Our unnamed narrator has been proposed to by her fairly long-term boyfriend Eric. She enjoys her time with him but isn’t sure about saying yes, and she’s not sure why. As the days after an answer was requested continue to roll by, she muses over their relationship, her childhood and present relationship with her parents, and her situation as a PhD chemistry student, trying to work out what she should do in life in general.

Chemistry is a deceptively complex novel awash with superb characterisation.

It seems so simple – formatted in a medium-sized type face, with large margins and many scene breaks that are effectively vignettes, Chemistry presents itself as an easy and quick read; and in many ways it is, the text itself fun and straight forward, winsome. But once you look beyond the surface, which you’ll find happens naturally as you continue reading, the depth and complexity of the novel starts to pour from the spine.

And there really is a lot to this short novel. The first-person narrative, which flips about in time to slowly uncover for both the reader and also the narrator herself why she feels as she does, is told in a slightly broken English that reflects her situation as a Chinese American who, whilst having been in the country since early childhood, has struggled with her parent’s expectations, school bullying, and what is presented as gentle teasing by Eric (which of course you slowly see has had quite an adverse effect).

The writing also allows Wang to develop a strong comedic streak to the book, which, whilst not often commented on, it’s revealed the character is ‘in’ on herself.

At the gate, he goes through his repertoire of tricks – sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five, sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five. I ask him to please be dignified about this, but I have not yet taught him that command.

You might expect that, given the sense of distance – somewhat literal – that can occur between reader and text due to the nature of vignettes, the characters would feel distant, but that is far from the case here. Despite the lack of a name for the narrator, and despite the fact that everything you hear about others is told solely through her in a report-like manner, there is an incredible strength to the characterisation of everyone, even the dog. (The dog is marvelous.) Wang has created a fully-realised cast of characters that are fantastic to read about and the lack of a name for the narrator becomes a very good argument for time spent developing characters – in this case, the lack of a name is of no importance; she didn’t need one. It could be argued you get a better sense of who the person is without it, because without a name to fall back on in order to reference her (though of course you can say ‘unnamed narrator’ as the blurb says and I’ve repeated) you are even more aware of her personality. And Wang takes this concept further – the only people who are named are Eric, and the narrator’s parents. Even the dog is called ‘dog’.

There just might be a point to that separation between the named and unnamed. Something the narrator has struggled with, that you come to feel she’s starting to realise but can’t quite grasp due to her upbringing and family culture, is the emotional and somewhat intellectual neglect she’s suffered from her parents, who at once want her to be great like her father but don’t offer the more subtle things she needs in order to reach her considered potential, a potential that she receives a lot of pressure to fulfill. One of the repeated situations in the book is that of the narrator’s visits to a counselor – shrink, she calls them, pointedly – who questions how she feels in the context of her background, trying to help her see that where she feels like a complete failure at life in general, these things have largely happened as a result of what she didn’t and still hasn’t received from her various relationships.

Let’s not forget the science and the industry – Chemistry is teaming with scientific facts made easy to understand. The narrator’s knowledge and Wang’s background in the subject make for a wonderful element that is both a backdrop for the rest of the story and a huge factor in itself. The facts are woven into the narrator’s feelings and experiences, a point here, an atom of knowledge there, so that you’re always learning (or revising!), never taking a break from the rest of the story.

Refraction is why I am not invisible. It is also why things in water, like fish, appear farther and bigger than you think, and once that fish gets pulled out of the water, you are vastly disappointed.

And yes, of course, ‘chemistry’ here is also romantic.

At its heart, then, Chemistry is a story about identity, which won’t surprise you if you consider other unnamed narrators, such as the second Mrs de Winter. It’s a story of indecision, the discovery of identity and personhood in general needing to happen before the decisions can follow. And it’s a story that will grip you until the final page, where Wang both ties things up in a beautiful, contextually reflective bow, and leaves you with the ribbon hanging loosely so that you can come to a bit of a conclusion and pulls the ends tightly by yourself.

Catalysts make reactions go faster. They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path.

This book is better than a whole lab of experiments.

I received this book for review.

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Hanif Kureishi – The Last Word

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Or words, plural. Many.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 344
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22755-1
First Published: 21st October 2013
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2017
Rating: 2.5/5

Harry is charged with writing a biography of Mamoon Azam, a literary giant; his editor promises it will launch his career. And so Harry goes to meet Mamoon and his Italian wife – his second wife, previously a fan of his work – and stays with them for a time, getting to know them both. There’s a lot to Mamoon’s life that Harry thinks should be included but the literary star has other ideas.

The Last Word is a somewhat comic novel looking at the situation and life of a fictional, rather pretentious person. Some reviews have said it seems to be a parody/based on V S Naipaul – Naipaul’s love life as reported on the internet does match Mamoon’s, albeit that Mamoon’s in this case is incredibly exaggerated.

The novel begins well and is very funny, but it quickly becomes stoic, with Harry, Mamoon, and Liana spending their days talking about various subjects and doing nothing else. The slight philosophical vibe of the book becomes overdone and repetitive, the plot never really going anywhere.

In addition to this the main characters are difficult. Harry spends his time talking about his strong feelings for his fiancée, Alice… whilst in bed with Julia, a person who works at Mamoon’s. Is this whole situation and sexual promiscuity likely part of the whole parody? Yes, but when there’s no really story arc to it and it’s included just because, it’s hard to say it’s of any worth.

This is to say that no one in this book learns anything, there is no character development at all and the plot doesn’t go anywhere. It’s hard to pinpoint a reason for the book, except perhaps, if it’s simply a sort of inside joke about another, factual, writer.

If you know a lot about Naipaul – if we consider it could be about him – then you might enjoy it but beyond the first few chapters (which are admittedly stellar) it’s difficult to say this one is worth your time. The type of comedy has a lot to recommend it – in another book, perhaps.

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Marie-Sabine Roger – Get Well Soon

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Doc, Grumpy, and perhaps one day, Happy.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 213
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27216-8
First Published: March 2012; 29th June 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 27th June 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: French
Original title: Bon Rétablissemnent (Good Recovery)
Translated by: Frank Wynne

Jean-Pierre is in hospital; dragged out of the Seine, no one as yet knows what happened, least of all Jean-Pierre himself, but whatever it was, his health has been set back and he needs to recuperate. Being in hospital isn’t great – the food’s very bland, it’s noisy, and no one ever closes the door to his room, but more to the point there’s an irritating 14-year-old girl, seemingly over-fed, who thinks she’s entitled to his laptop. There’s the young man who saved him with whom Jean-Pierre is having trouble communicating; thank god – even if you don’t believe in him – for the policeman who has taken a liking to him and visits all the time, even if that’s strange. At some point they’re going to have to find out what happened and hopefully Jean-Pierre will be allowed to get out of bed and get away from it all.

Get Well Soon is a fairly fun, short, novel. Completely character-driven, it’s a book that combines thought with the idea of a quick an easy read, a fairly literary book that will interest those who might not have time at present to invest into literary fiction.

This is a book about a slight mental and emotional journey. Jean-Pierre is a grumpy old sod – a description that suits his own word choices – grumpy enough you’d think he was older than he is, and Roger’s aim is to fully acknowledge this and allow it to continue whilst slowly introducing the character’s better qualities and a gentle change of heart. Her characterisation means you start out disliking him intensely before liking him a bit more and then becoming content with feeling somewhere in between.

There is a lot to like about the author’s way with words in regards to characterisation. Building a character slowly, with full attention paid to how the reader experiences it all seems to be, if this book and last year’s translation of the excellent Soft In The Head is anything to go by, Roger’s focus. However in the case of Jean-Pierre Fabre here, it’s perhaps too slow, to the effect that you feel something has been missed; there was potentially more of a change going on in Roger’s imagination of the character than has been marked down on the page. This is where ‘no plot’ and ‘slight journey’ comes in – this is a book full of gentle humour and heart but whilst reading Jean-Pierre’s musings on his life is fun, there isn’t much to them.

But let’s look at the humour – it graces most every page. Roger can be brusque, and never shies from presenting a person steeped in their own social and age-related context. Jean-Pierre meets enough of a stereotype for Roger to explain the basics quickly and then move on to the details. The cheeky jokes. The descriptions. The thinking behind Jean-Pierre’s actions, and the thinking done for thoughts’ sake. The process of a sort of everyday prejudice that starts to untangle itself as Jean-Pierre sees how things aren’t as they appear, or that for all that something may sound unpleasant, perhaps uncouth, there are reasons to be considered. It is the dissection of social constructs together with the humour, that make this book. It’s very much one small person’s considerations that won’t change him on a general level, but it’s a good read.

The translation is good – albeit that Wynne is aided by the French names and the references to French locations, Wynne’s choices ensure you never forget this is a French book. As such you won’t forget it’s a translation but that’s no matter as Wynne has let Rogers’ words shine through.

There is a bit to think about and much to enjoy; Get Well Soon is a quiet book, a nice example of Rogers’ writing ability. You likely won’t remember the character but you will remember the author’s technique.

I received this book for review.

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Tom Connolly – Men Like Air

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Concrete jungle where dreams are made of.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 373
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-43488-3
First Published: 21st September 2016
Date Reviewed: 24th February 2017
Rating: 5/5

Finn hops on a plane from London to New York City with girlfriend Dilly, looking forward to seeing the sights but most importantly to maybe finding his older brother, Jack, who looked after him as a child. When he meets Jack, the man is coming down with the flu and Dilly decides she doesn’t want to stay in what she feels is an underwhelming place, so they move on. In due course, Finn will find himself employed at a swanky art gallery after stealing money from a location in front of it – Leo, the owner, will be impressed by his guts and the idea of having someone so unsuited to the art world in their sphere. And the man Leo used to meet for breakfast every day, brother-in-law William, will continue being content, nay, happy, with his simple routine.

Men Like Air is a book that uses stereotypes unashamedly in order to do what it wants to do. It’s all about character and is a whole lot of fun.

The book has everything you’d expect of a good novel that’s all about characters rather than plot. Even the plot, which is mostly day-to-day (in Jack’s case, for example, for a long time this book is mostly about trying to live through the flu, a level of detailing and time provided to routine illness that Connolly is obviously adamant needs to be realistic and is a welcome change from the very brief moments of illness or just being told someone is sick that happens in other books) will disappoint if you’re expecting a good one. There is a plot but the ending is quick, sudden, and not particularly satisfying outside of its prognosis for the characters. Go into this book for plot rather than characterisation and you’ll likely not enjoy it. (You can also go into it looking for patches of bookish discussion.)

In many ways, then, the book is a parody. The quick ending sports a brief flash forwards of what will happen in a way that mimics the ending of Mansfield Park – yes, two very different books that nevertheless share something specific. The time spent on the characters, making them real, is matched by the time having a laugh and doing things that remind you they are fictional. Connolly uses a lot of devices to good effect – the extreme personalities, the use of female characters as supporting roles, the use of a past year when the present would have been fine, scenes that don’t do much to push the narrative forward. One could say it’s literary fiction that bridges the gap – literary fiction that those who don’t like literary fiction will enjoy just as much as those who do, even more so, perhaps.

New York is shown as both a tourist destination and in its day-to-day life. Finn looks forward to seeing it and there is a brief sudden trip up the Empire State Building but other than that the tourism happens in bog standard restaurants and lesser internationally well-known places. And the tourism mainly consists of Finn walking around. It is in some ways a character itself, especially when it comes to William’s ruminations on the mornings and beauty of it, but more than that it’s Connolly’s admiration that shows through. Evie Wyld’s blurb on the front cover says it perfectly: “An epic love letter to New York City.”

Coming to the narration, then, it’s third person past tense and moves back and forth between the characters with often a mere single linked sentence – if you’re not on the ball you may have to backtrack when you realise the point of view has changed. It’s the sort of narrative choice that can come under fire but with all the comedy and intentional extremes it’s easy to view it as another carefully considered device. Connolly often details, briefly, the situation of strangers who pass by the characters, adding to the comedy, but ‘briefly’ is the word – it’s quick, stopping before the time you’d get bored of the idea of a detour.

This is, as the summary says, a book about male relationships, but for all the comedy, parody, and simple delight of the work, it can seem a subtle one. In many ways it’s a book about the self. Is it very ‘manly’? Yes, but as said above, whilst the women support, supporting is a device. There is often a female aspect at work, for example standing up to sexism, even whilst in the first chapters the worrier know-it-all whirlwind that is Dilly may make you want to stop reading (another feeling Connolly has created and knows when to stop – he’s quite the master of this sort of storytelling).

It is difficult to say exactly why this book is so good. It moves slowly through the days (if you ever forget that there is Jack’s continuing flu to remind you), slowly through everyday routine. You feel you’re learning something or being told something without being able to pinpoint exactly what. Things that suggest it would be boring. But it’s not. It takes time but it makes you smile, it steeps you in New York without really exploring it or detailing much about it (one assumes many of the locations – restaurants, galleries – are fictional), it allows you to laugh at it as well as with it. Throughout you can see the author considering his reader and, much like he has his characters, he’s considered many different types of reader rather than the idea of a whole.

As Wyld’s blurb continues, “…bold, absorbing and very funny.” Men Like Air is a super book that needs to be read – reviews will only ever be able to go so far in explaining it. It’s a book for mornings, for lunchtimes, for evenings. A book for weekdays and weekends. There is so much to it and whilst you may wish you could have spent longer seeing where the characters went, you won’t feel at a loss.

I received this book for review.

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