Way Beyond Retro: Charlotte Lennox – The Female Quixote

Welcome to another installment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. The Female Quixote was one of the books I bought as research for the thesis I never finished and consequently I never read the book. It is the second of four 18th century novels in this series, as the previous and next two books are also leftovers from the thesis-that-wasn’t-to-be.

The Female QuixoteIn The Female Quixote (1752) Lennox exploits the clash of literary illusion and mundane reality with deft and high-spirited satire whose comedy overlays a serious concern for her heroine.

Brought up by her widowed father in a remote English castle, Arabella resorts to reading the French novels popular in her mother’s youth, and in the solitude of this Arcadia paints a picture of her life as adventurous and deeply romantic. When her father dies, however, she inherits a barbed legacy: if she is not to lose part of the estate it appears she must marry her cousin Glanville. But Arabella has developed a different, private code of conduct which does not allow her to take any role but centre stage in the drama of her own life; her literary heroines are always in control.

Let me be honest; The Female Quixote was a huge struggle to get through. Only the fact that I’d decided that I was going to finish this book and review it, kept me from putting it away. Frustratingly, this wasn’t because the story as such was bad or the writing was shoddy, it was because Lennox’s protagonist Arabella does what she is meant to do too well.

Arabella is completely obsessed with French Romances. She’s an eighteenth century Twihard, only sans vampires. This becomes problematic when she decides this is how the world should work and leads her life accordingly. Naturally, the world doesn’t work like this and when Arabella’s father dies, her life becomes complicated, as her perceptions of life and the real world start to clash. Arabella’s voice is distinct and unique and was problematic for me. Lennox let her speak in the language of romance and that means long, convoluted sentences, which sometimes require several rereads to make sense. The following is a good example of Arabella’s speech:

When I shall be so fortunate, interrupted she, to meet with a Lover who shall have as pure and perfect a Passion for me, as Oroondates had for Statira; and give me as many glorious Proofs of his Constancy and Affection, doubtless I shall not be ungrateful: But since I have not the Merits of Statira, I ought not to pretend to her good Fortune; and shall be very well contented if I escape the Persecutions which Persons of my Sex, who are not frightfully ugly, are always exposed to, without hoping to inspire such a Passion as that of Oroondates. (p. 48)

Arabella speaks as if she should write on pink paper with purple ink and dot her i’s with hearts. Luckily, only Arabella and occasionally Sir George, he of dishonourable intent, use this mode of speech. The other characters speak far more plainly. The difference in voice between Glanville and Arabella is distinct and serves to emphasize Arabella’s silliness. Arabella’s strange notions are almost as exasperating to me, as the reader, as they are to her suitor Glanville.

However, while exasperating, Arabella’s eccentricity does serve to make Lennox’s point. As stated in the introduction and the appendix to the book, The Female Quixote was meant to be an indictment of the romances and the nefarious influence they could have on young minds and, through Lennox’s portrayal of Arabella, as such it succeeds. Arabella’s ‘conversion’ comes about abruptly and the final book feels very rushed; the reasons for this are explored in the appendix, so I won’t go into them here, other than to say that while as a denouement it may have been a little underwhelming, at that point in the narrative I was just glad to get it over with.

Another factor that made the reading experienced a mixed one for me, was the editor’s decision to retain the original capitalisation and interpunction. The use of capitals for almost every proper noun is distracting, as is the italicisation of all names. Adding to the confusion was the lack of quotation marks in dialogues, which at times made it difficult to keep straight who was speaking and what was part of the speech and what was meant as description of the speaker. While I can understand the desire to stay close to the original text, especially for academic purposes, for the casual reader such as myself, it would have been preferable if at least the capitalisation and quotation marks had been modernised.

The question then remains why this book should be read today? I can think of several reasons. One, it has a place in English literary history, if only for its connection to both Dr. Johnson and Samuel Richardson. Two, whatever the book’s flaws, Charlotte Lennox was a skilled writer, who wrote her story with great flair and thorough knowledge of her subject matter and deserves to be read. Three, despite everything, Arabella remains a sympathetic character and if you look beyond the absurdity of her notions,  her situation shows the unequal position women occupied in the eigtheenth century. This last point is further explored in Margaret Anne Doody’s introduction to the book. Apart from giving some insight into Charlotte Lennox’s history, Doody touches on several feminist themes in the book.

So, if this book deserves to be read in my opinion, who would I recommend it too? Honestly, only to those who wouldn’t read it casually. It’s not a book read purely for pleasure by a chance passerby. It’s more suited to those who would read it for research or someone very familiar with the literature of the times. I am neither of these anymore and because of that, this book, while technically sound, just didn’t work for me and turned in to a really tough read.