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The Female Quixote On Historical Epic Romances, And The Value Of Reading In The 1700s

A drawing of Charlotte Lennox

As I have been compiling the notes for my future review of The Female Quixote, I came to the several highlights made of the dialogue that forms Arabella’s long-expected ‘cure’ from her romantic notions; these highlights will not be making it into my review so I thought I would collect them here; they are quite fascinating and make for a small exploration of the thoughts of 1700s people – or, at least, 1700s writers – on fiction, in particular romantic fiction (as swooning epics of the past were referred to).

Something I will likely add to my review is this statement; it’s also very relevant here:

Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote (1752) 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).

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The same source goes on to say that the book ‘avoids endorsing this demolition of romance… The precise relationship The Female Quixote establishes between madness and romance needs careful articulation’. And later, ‘This critical narrative commands respect for exposing how eighteenth-century culture controlled female power and, equally importantly, how such control could be contested.’ (ibid.)

I do not know enough about the period’s literary culture to comment on it in general, but certainly Lennox’s novel suggests a background of ridicule; whilst we can’t say for certain that Lennox herself disliked epic romances, particularly given our contemporary thoughts as to viewing author and text as separate entities, the possibility is certainly there and even if not from Lennox’s own heart, it exists as someone’s opinion… quite possibly, given that Lennox was of his circle and looked up to him, Samuel Richardson.

Without further ado, then, let’s look at these extracts from the second to last chapter of the novel – which in itself is a subject of debate as some believe it to be the work of Samuel Johnson (both Samuels were in Lennox’s circle). The discourse between the Doctor and Arabella concerning the knowledge she has gained from books which she thinks contain facts (please note, quotation marks are not used in the original text):

To the names of many of these illustrious sufferers I am an absolute stranger, replied the doctor. The rest I faintly remember some mention of in those contemptible volumes with which children are sometimes injudiciously suffered to amuse their imaginations; but which I little expected to hear quoted by your ladyship in a serious discourse. And though I am very far from catching occasions of resentment, yet I think myself at liberty to observe, that if I merited your censure for one indelicate epithet, we have engaged on very unequal terms, if I may not likewise complain of such contemptuous ridicule as you are pleased to exercise upon my opinions by opposing them with the authority of scribblers, not only of fictions, but of senseless fictions; which at once vitiate the mind and pervert the understanding; and which if they are at any time read with safety, owe their innocence only to their absurdity.

Whether the above was written by or with a mind to Samuel Johnson, or whether it’s entirely the product of Lennox’s thoughts, there is a strong dislike of ‘senseless fictions’; the ‘not only of fictions’ could be taken to mean that the writer dislikes fiction in general, however, given Lennox’s interests in novels I think we can say that’s not the case. We have ‘read with safety, owe their innocence only to their absurdity’ which could be applied to Lennox’s work itself, an absurd book that readers would know without doubt is fiction and thus it is ‘safe’ to read.

There is also this, Arabella’s opinion of her past occupations once reality is pointed out to her:

What examples can be afforded by the patience of those who never suffered, or the chastity of those who were never solicited? The great end of history is to show how much human nature can endure or perform. When we hear a story in common life that raises our wonder or compassion, the first confutation stills our emotions; and however we were touched before, we then chase it from the memory with contempt as a trifle, or with indignation as an imposture. Prove, therefore, that the books which I have hitherto read as copies of life, and models of conduct, are empty fictions, and from this hour I deliver them to moths and mould; and from this time consider their authors as wretches who cheated me of those hours I ought to have dedicated to application and improvement, and betrayed me to a waste of those years in which I might have laid up knowledge for my future life.

Whilst this begins well and says good things, unfortunately, given that a long time prior to this, Arabella’s cousin and ‘lover’, Glanville, had been on the cusp of directing the servants to burn the collection, it’s likely that Lennox had in mind a mass burning of books when she wrote The End, or Finis.

On the (more) positive side to this post, on the value of reading in general and the value of novels in the 1700s specifically, Lennox includes these fragments:

…and the great use of books, is that of participating without labour or hazard, the experience of others.

Particularly, we could say, when those fictions concern killing one’s rivals in love, being taken by ravishers, and dying for the extreme amount of love one has for someone unobtainable.

Truth is not always injured by fiction. […] Books ought to supply an antidote to example.

To use words Arabella might appreciate, oh blessed relief!

The only excellence of falsehood, answered he, is its resemblance to truth; as therefore any narrative is more liable to be confuted by its inconsistency with known facts, it is at a greater distance from the perfection of fiction; for there can be no difficulty in framing a tale, if we are left at liberty to invert all history and nature for our own convenience. When a crime is to be concealed, it is easy to cover it with an imaginary wood. When virtue is to be rewarded, a nation with a new name may, without any expense of invention, raise her to the throne. When Ariosto was told of the magnificence of his palaces, he answered, that the cost of poetical architecture was very little; and still less is the cost of building without art, than without materials.

Ladies are most problematic:

Then let me again observe, resumed he, that these books soften the heart to love, and harden it to murder. That they teach women to exact vengeance, and men to execute it; teach women to expect not only worship, but the dreadful worship of human sacrifices. Every page of these volumes is filled with such extravagance of praise, and expressions of obedience, as one human being ought not to hear from another; or with accounts of battles, in which thousands are slaughtered for no other purpose than to gain a smile from the haughty beauty, who sits a calm spectatress [sic] of the ruin and desolation, bloodshed and misery, incited by herself.

It is impossible to read these tales without lessening part of that humility, which by preserving in us a sense of our alliance with all human nature, keeps us awake to tenderness and sympathy, or without impairing that compassion which is implanted in us as an incentive to acts of kindness. If there be any preserved by natural softness, or early education, from learning pride and cruelty, they are yet in danger of being betrayed to the vanity of beauty, and taught the arts of intrigue.

Given that the penultimate chapter (the one these extracts are taken from) is so different than the others, bordering on philosophical, it may indeed be the case that as some suspect, Samuel Johnson had a big role to play in its creation, though if he did, it would have been quite against his own literary tastes, as ‘Johnson had, if not a taste, at least an appetite, for the old-fashioned romances which Mrs. Lenox [sic] satirised’ (Dobson, 1892). Certainly, if not for that, there seems a sudden effort to bring in the thoughts of an intellectual in the field in ways there hadn’t been before; there is a difference between the Doctor’s dialogue and that of the Countess a few chapters before who, due to authorial devices, was unable to complete the slow suggestions she had begun to bring about to Arabella that what she had read does not reflect reality. And there is a difference between the Doctor and the historian Mr Selvin who for reasons likely, again, to do with devices and keeping the story going, did not last long in the text and indeed took the view that the lady who knew all these accounts he had never heard of, was more well-read than himself.

But however the chapter was created, it is a mini treasure trove of a few subjects – fairly generalised, but with some interesting insights into the 1700s’ reader’s mind and a few phrases about books that are quite wonderful.

References

Books

Dobson, Austin (1892), Eighteenth Century Vignettes, Thomas Nelson & Sons

Articles

Gordon, Scott Paul (1998), The Space of Romance in Lennox’s Female Quixote, Vol. 38, Issue 3, pp.499-516

 
Could There Have Been An Alternative Ending For The Awakening?

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The Awakening alternative ending.’

It came as quite a shock to me to see this phrase in the list of search queries that had led visitors to my site; I think anyone who has read the book can emphasise – the ending is a crucial element to the impact of the text. Nevertheless, I’d like to explore this possibility of a difference, and to do that I believe it’s worth first considering the intent and purpose behind such a query.

The situation that first comes to mind is that of a student, perhaps a school student rather than university where, I presume, studies of the book would be less general and more about the female agency; in a general study, such a query or consideration would be possible. Either someone wants another’s opinion, or they are looking for inspiration with which to write an ending themselves.

This brings us to possibility number two – a search for a fabled ending. Alternate endings are hardly unheard of, consider Dickens’ original ending of Great Expectations and the recommendation that he change it to something more positive… and arguably more romantic!

Perhaps however, it’s more simple: a person, very affected by Chopin’s ending, who is looking for a different one. Such intent would be categorised as personal research and furthering one’s reading. Continued interest, albeit for a reason Chopin may have not agreed with.

So to the possibility of another ending, could there be one in terms of viability? Edna could always have chosen to turn back before she became too tired but in the context of her time, arguably also Chopin’s, it would have achieved these two things:

  1. It would have made people, both fictional and factual (think of the angry reviewers of the time) think things, life, were fine as they were. Chopin would have been commended for going along with the status quo and putting the woman with the bizarre thoughts – near hysteria! – back in her place. (In this vein it’s worth considering also the effect Edna’s choice would have had on Léonce and the children.)
  2. The novel would not have achieved its full purpose and, indeed, the good work done by Chopin in the lead up to the ending would have been obliterated.

So there could have been a second ending, sure, but we would not likely still be reading the book as much as we are; it would be but a similar story to many other books. We might be looking at Anna Karenina for everything else which of course does not have the same message, albeit that there’s a similarity between the texts.

Might Edna have been okay with going back, whether literally turning around and swimming home or never going to the sea in the first place, that final time? I think we can say that she would possibly have been content but not happy. Her children would have kept her at home perhaps – or might she have left them and Léonce for good, just moving on? – but there is too much about her that doesn’t fit the socially prescribed mold. Unfortunately in this situation her children would, as much as they might also please her, remind her of her restricted life. An Edna today might have travelled the world, solo. The independence she wanted was impossible in her society.

Could Edna have had a better relationship than the one she had with Léonce, one with more freedom? Probably. Something that has always interested me is the blend in Léonce of some less restrictive elements with the then-standard socially acceptable limits he placed on Edna. He was far from the worst but still strict. Chopin surely also felt the need for her ending to support her own views and life choices, and in both of these she is more independently minded than many. She started writing after the death of her husband and her marriage was not a bad one.

If the ending were different, it would have been better at the time, the critical reviews a lot more positive, likely completely different. We know that Chopin didn’t write any more novels precisely because of the reception of The Awakening. But to have written novels that were well received may have been to compromise her values. We might remember her differently.

Chopin’s famous short story, Désirée’s Baby, sported a very similar ending, with Désirée walking into the water – she ‘disappeared among the reeds and willows’, after her husband disowns her for giving birth to a child of mixed heritage. It’s obviously a type of ending that Chopin saw good symbolism in, a firm way to get her point across. (The short story was published 6 years prior to the novel.)

To sum, I don’t think we can really contemplate another ending. The ending is there for good reason. It may have been poorly received then, but it’s considered a triumph today. Edna chose the only freedom available to her. She was stuck in ways her fictional descendents wouldn’t be now.

Your thoughts?

 
Event Report From The Host: In Conversation With Claire Fuller

A photograph of Claire Fuller

Yesterday evening saw our first event at Cobbett Hub & Library in the Bitterne Park area of Southampton. Claire Fuller joined us and told many wonderful stories including the inspiration that led to Swimming Lessons (notes she and her husband left around each other’s houses), the influence of Kate Chopin on the same book, and the story of a young boy that helped inspire Our Endless Numbered Days. (Of that book she also spoke of the way the survivalist subject was written – having discovered there were no cults in Britain in 1976, the year the book begins, she brought in a fictional American.)

We had some wonderful questions, including one that led to Claire telling us about completing NaNoWriMo with one word over the requirement, and another in which she described her method of working – writing, going back and editing, and moving on.

The library proved the perfect setting, the panelled interior and wooden bookcases full of texts providing a nice colourful backdrop; all original 1930s Art Deco. We’ll most likely be making it our long term home. Many thanks to Claire, the library, and the Friends of Cobbett Road Library.

Claire’s next book, Bitter Orange is out on 2nd August. With only a few pages left to read, I can fully recommend it.

A photograph of Claire Fuller A photograph of me and Claire Fuller A photograph of me and Claire Fuller

 
Reading Life: 11th May 2018

A photograph of a copy of Faces In The Crowd against the backdrop of Spain

You may have seen on Twitter that I was away over the last week. For the first time I took only my Kobo and one very thin book, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces In The Crowd, which I found on a library shelf, the last date it had been borrowed suggesting to me I’d better take it out soon. I’ve learned a lot about library use the past few months.

Luiselli isn’t an author who has been on my list, but I recognised her name from a panel at Hay two years ago and knew that if she was there along with other well-known authors, her books were likely worth picking up. Faces In The Crowd, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Luiselli is Mexican) is about a woman who works as a translator, going around her city’s libraries to find more Latin American authors to add to her small company’s list. It’s a clever book-in-a-book, the novel she’s writing interspersed with dialogue and questions from, for example, her husband – on one page there is a paragraph about how the character shares a bed with another woman, and the couple of sentences that follow after a pause are composed of her husband asking her if it’s true she’s slept with women. It’s sometimes difficult to tell when or where any one vignette is set and whether it’s fiction within the fiction or simply the first level of it, as it were, but that becomes part of the charm and is undoubtedly a part of the point of it all.

I didn’t consciously borrow this book thinking I’d take it to Spain, but for the language it ended up being a good choice. As it turned out, my plans to read outside early each morning weren’t realised – the weather wasn’t very good – so I’ve still a fair amount of the book to read.

In other bookish news, I recently received Claire Fuller’s upcoming Bitter Orange and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing; the latter is set in the 1700s and already at page nine I’m loving it. With my event now less than a week away I’ll be switching between these two books, leaving others aside until the end of next week; the Gyasi is set for review on Monday, and I plan to have a good chunk of Fuller’s book behind me by Thursday. The remaining portion of The Female Quixote will have to wait a little longer.

At some point in the near future I’ll be reading Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter. I’ve wanted to read it for a while and found a library copy to browse through. The opening pages took me straight back to the fantastic literary atmosphere Anna Hope created in Wake; I want to go back to that particular combination of writing and setting.

What was the last translated book you read?

 
The Bookshops Of Hay-On-Wye

Hay-on-Wye is called the town of books for good reason – there are more bookshops than you can possibly visit unless you don’t intend on browsing and haven’t come for the festival. Considering the amount of choice there is, it makes sense to go in with a plan. During my downtime at last year’s festival, I had a mooch around the streets to see what was on offer. Here are five of the best stores:

A photograph of The Addyman Annexe

The Addyman Annexe: 27 Castle Street
Monday – Saturday: 10:00-17:30
Sunday: 10:30-17:30

There are two Addyman locations; this is the largest and stands on the main street you walk down from the festival site. The Annexe sells a lot of literary-related items; last year Taffywood Books mugs jostled for space on a windowsill with old orange Penguin Classics. A special festival section for children’s books took a little space. The shop sells a good range of both new and second hand books and is vibrant in its colour. Don’t miss the upper floor; the stairs are against the wall by the tall yellow shelves in the back room.

A photograph of Broad Street Book Centre

Broad Street Book Centre: 6 Broad Street
Open all week: 10:30-17:00

Situated across the street and a little further down the road from The Granary (a cafe you will come most definitely come across or hear about), is the Broad Street Book Centre. A fantastic rabbit warren of a store, just when you think you’ve reached the end it goes on further, with more books than you’d ever have thought possible from outside. The books are solely second hand and the variety spans all ages and categories, older books and new, from fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Stacked away in a tiny space towards the back is a pretty marvelous selection of very old books, some popular selections, others you may never have heard of but want to buy nonetheless.

A photograph of Murder And Mayhem

Murder And Mayhem: 5 Lion Street
Monday-Saturday: 10:30-17:30
Open some Sundays

This shop does what it says on the tin, except for the murder part! Whilst other shops have books on various surfaces, Murder And Mayhem takes it a literal step further with piles of glorious Allison & Busby mystery classics sat against the walls of the stairs. It’s worth the careful journey north as the room at the top is rather beautiful in its extreme bookish messiness. Back on the ground floor and the room you first enter into is full of wonderful publisher-specific piles. A great many Penguin Classics fight for space along the left wall, hoping you won’t miss them in this unusual arrangement where there are so many more books equally capable of grabbing the collector’s attention.

A photograph of The Poetry Bookshop

The Poetry Bookshop: The Pavement, Lion Street
Monday-Saturday: 11:00-17:00
Open some Sundays from 12:00

At the end of a tiny street away from the hustle and bustle of the town (at least when the festival is on) sits The Poetry Bookshop, in a detached building. A fair space, there are lots of shelves here and everything is carefully categorised. There are also lots of biographies of poets, compilations of literary magazines content, and books full of interviews. A selection of second-hand fiction rounds it off.

A photograph of Richard Booth's

Richard Booth’s: 44 Lion Street
Monday-Saturday: 9:30-17:30
Sunday: 10:30-17:00
Cafe
Tuesday-Saturday: 9:30-4:30
Sunday: 10:30-3:30
Last orders are 30 minutes before closing

Richard Booth’s is one you can’t miss: nestled between others in its terrace, the exterior nevertheless stands out, its design ensuring your interest. At its entrance – very grand, all wood and lovely low ceilings, is the fiction, with a lot of books by authors in attendance at the festival. Awesome stationary – on this occasion sheets of wrapping paper with recipes printed on them – sat beside the counter. It’s worth walking on towards the back – a stunning staircase runs from the centre of the floor up to the new level where a large number of shelves are arranged much like a library. The selection is extensive. Sofas at the end of the main aisle, with plenty of light from the back and above in the roof make for an atmosphere place to read your new purchases. Crime books can be found in the basement.

In addition to a bookshop, Richard Booth’s own a cinema on Brook Street that shows a range of films – many based on books (the new adaptation of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is currently one of those on offer. I’m so glad they kept the full title!)

When I first walked round the bookshops and took my notes, I envisaged writing about them soon afterwards, partly because of the current climate of closures. I wasn’t able to write in time and, deciding to keep it back until the festival tents were up once again, I am delighted to say that all of the shops I visited – ten in total – are still there. Long may it remain the case.

 

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