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The Influence Of The Female Quixote On Northanger Abbey

A drawing of Charlotte Lennox

It has been proposed that The Female Quixote, with its bookish heroine who believes women’s lives and loves should play out as they do in epic novels (the character’s sole experience of life is through reading), influenced Austen when she created Northanger Abbey1. I’m now several chapters into Lennox’s work and already the inspiration is very apparent; whilst Northanger Abbey speaks of Ann Radcliffe, Frances Burney, and Eliza Parsons (whose referenced works were first thought, in the context of Austen’s book, to not be real) there are a huge number of similarities between it and Lennox’s work.

It’s interesting that the book that was perhaps the biggest influence was not named by Austen in her novel2; perhaps the older work, successful during its time (and Lennox is now seen in academia as one of the most important female authors of her time3), wasn’t popular enough later on for her to feel a commentary was worth it. (‘Moderately popular’ has been proposed as the level of Lennox’s fame in the 1800s4; the book is pretty obscure today but slowly gaining in popularity again.) It’s also possible, if we consider the subject of plagiarism that is so commented on today, that Austen was aware just how similar her work was, that she was parodying a book that is itself a parody, and, to use a modern phrase, didn’t want to go there. However, considering the way she is very open, through the character of Catherine Morland, that her book owes a lot to the Gothic fiction of decades past, that second possibility isn’t nearly as compelling.

I think we’d better have a list of the comparisons I’ve noted so far:

  • Both Catherine Morland and Arabella are incredibly bookish.
  • Both read books that are real works of literature.
  • Both get their ideas of romance and what they should expect from that literature.
  • Both expect the world to align somewhat to that literature (though Arabella expects far more).
  • Both books are comedic.
  • Both books break the fourth wall between author and reader.

The characters’ choices of reading material differ slightly – Catherine reads Gothic romance from the 1700s, and Arabella reads epic romances from 1600s. (Arabella’s favourites include the longest work of literature published by a mainstream publisher, Artamene Ou Le Grand Cyrus by Madeleine de Scudery – 13,000 pages. No wonder the hero of the book is shocked when he agrees to read her favourites and Arabella’s servant arrives with them!)

Exaggeration and high drama permeate both characters’ choices, but Arabella takes it further than Catherine. Where Catherine gets excited about staying in a gothic building, opens doors she shouldn’t, and accepts criticism, Arabella lives her life to the letter, so to speak, and expects people to conform to the ways of behaviour of her favourite characters which, given they are often historical and taken from ancient myths, are even more exaggerated and over the top than anything from Arabella’s own period. Catherine is a little out of touch with the reality of her world; Arabella is getting towards being a transplant from centuries past.

A drawing of Jane Austen by her sister, Cassandra

The reason for each character acting the way they do is different. Catherine’s reading aligns somewhat with what we know about Austen: her bookishness is ultimately her choice and she is fairly independent. Arabella has been isolated all her life, in part due to choice, but also due to her standing; she found her father’s library and that was that. Lennox was estranged from her husband for years before they separated, a man who claimed to be an Earl but likely was not. Lennox was part of the same literary scene as Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, and Samuel Richardson. The women of the circle were not fond of her. She was well known in her circles but otherwise mostly anonymous.

Two authors of relative independence who were quite successful in their times but mostly anonymous; known to a few people of standing – Lennox more than Austen; both more successful in the years since their deaths, with Austen’s fame increasing far quicker than Lennox – Austen has been famous for a long time, whilst Lennox’s fame is today still on the rise.

It’s fascinating to look at two works alongside each other, one known or suspected to be an influence on the second. It’s particularly compelling when looking at works of centuries past where close reading is required more than it is when comparing more modern texts, the lesser amount of knowledge as to the writer’s background and the genesis of the work necessitating more time spent on the fiction due to there being fewer, if any, opportunities to incorporate authorial evidence that supports the idea.

References & Footnotes

1 Doody, Margaret Anne, Introduction, The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox, Oxford University Press, 1989, page unknown.
2 “Indeed, in a letter to her sister Cassandra, Austen describes reading and thoroughly enjoying The Female Quixote, and scholars have recently noted this novel’s influence on Northanger Abbey.” — Jansen, Sharon L, Charlotte Lennox and Mothers of the Novel, monstrousregimentofwomen.com, 4th January 2015, accessed 27th April 2018.
3 Facer, Ruth, ‘Charlotte (Ramsey) Lennox’, ChawtonHouse.org, n.d., accessed 27th April 2018.
4 Unknown, ‘Charlotte Lennox’, Wikipedia.org, last updated 15th February 2018, accessed 27th April 2018.

 
 

April Munday

April 29, 2018, 11:52 am

I’m doing a MOOC on Austen at the moment – https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/jane-austen. So far it’s prompted me to re-read Mansfield Park, my least favourite of the novels.

I knew that Northanger Abbey was inspired by books by Mrs Radcliffe and co, but I didn’t know about the Female Quixote. It will have to go on my ‘Austen’s influences’ reading list.

Charlie

April 30, 2018, 2:11 pm

April: I’d definitely recommend that. It’s often laugh-out-loud, so very fun as studies for references go.

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