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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

 
 

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