Charlotte Lennox’s best-known novel is still not particularly well known—certainly not as famous as its contemporaries, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (published four years earlier) or Fielding’s Tom Jones (published three years earlier). There’s a reason for that: The Female Quixote is patchily constructed, with psychological acuity in its early books fading into a kind of episodic filler approach in later ones (although there’s a reason for this, too, as we’ll see). It is, however, both extremely funny and extremely interesting in the way it shows a young, unmarried woman claiming the kind of power for herself that her society simply does not grant her. Arabella’s ability to steamroll others, largely men, into accepting that she possesses a right to command them is remarkable, even if, at the end of the book, she is “tamed”, her “madness” passes away, and she accepts docility and submission as the wife of the patient and kind, if also rather predictable, Mr. Glanville.
The title of the book suggests the nature of Arabella’s “madness”. Like our friend Don Quixote from earlier in the year, she has read too many of the wrong sorts of books; unlike Don Q, she has overdosed not on chivalry books but on tales of heroic romance. These were prolifically produced by French writers in the late seventeenth- and early- to mid-eighteenth centuries, and there are so many of them that the use of the scholarly footnotes is eventually rendered pointless, because every time a little footnote number appears, it is bound simply to be another summary of whichever heroic romance Arabella is quoting from this time. What this tells us is that Charlotte Lennox had an intimate personal acquaintance with the canon of heroic romance, which throws the generally accepted view of The Female Quixote as pure satire into question. Why bother becoming deeply read in texts that you scorn and despise if your only purpose is to mock them? Is it not more likely that Mrs. Lennox had, at least, a conflicted relationship with heroic romance, and that Arabella’s behaviour in The Female Quixote has greater complexity?
After all, her madness allows her a great deal of freedom. The heroines of romance are queens, empresses and princesses, not only of kingdoms but of hearts; the women upon whom she models her behaviour, like Statira, Thalestris, Cleopatra, and Media, have the powers to raise men nearly from the dead merely by commanding them to live and “permitting them to hope”. They have no obligation to be compassionate, no social pressure to placate or soothe wounded feelings, other than this. Indeed, in romance, the more miserable and wretched a male suitor is, the better he proves himself worthy to perhaps eventually kiss his beloved’s hand; in the meantime, anything less than at least ten years of devoted service, in which either he kills thousands of enemies for her sake, or lives in pastoral, hermitic retreat, is considered insufficient. (Miss Glanville, Lady Arabella’s cousin, points out, rather inconveniently, that ten years of service will make both parties “old” when they finally begin courting; Arabella responds with horror and disgust at Miss Glanville’s vulgarity, since of course the consequences of the passage of time are never dwelt upon in heroic romance.) What this means is that for a young lady in the 1750s to model her behaviour upon these heroines, she must arrogate to herself much more power and consequence than she actually possesses, and for a long time in The Female Quixote, this more or less works. “A little more Submission and Respect would become you better; you are now wholly in my Power”, she informs a startled dandy on page 20.
Her power, of course, in this case, comes from her father, as she indeed acknowledges. The patriarchal world of England in the 1750s means her peculiarities are much more indulged than they would otherwise have been, because she has a large fortune and her father was a lord. Were she a dairymaid, her convictions of high status would see her packed off to an asylum. (And yet: her uncle at one point is seriously considering having her committed, something we are only told in passing but which serves as a sharp reminder that no women of any station have more than nominal power in this world. The tension between Arabella’s absolute belief in her own righteousness when she berates a man for his insolence in following her, and the equally strong belief, in the society in which she lives, that women simply do not have a right to privacy—a woman wanting to be left alone could retire to her chamber, but would not dare to place limitations upon a man’s movements—is a small example of the tension that drives the book. She is clearly not mad, and yet what is madness if not a failure to understand and accept the limitations of your environment?)
There is a trade-off to Arabella’s claims of power, of course. The world at large views her as ridiculous, her cousin Glanville loves her but is embarrassed by her presumptuous outpourings, and when they visit Bath and London, she is gossiped about relentlessly. None of this, however, makes much of an impression on Arabella. Until her conversion in the penultimate chapter, she is largely concerned with preserving her reputation; the problem is that she misapprehends her society’s idea of a good reputation, and her society, in turn, misapprehends her notion of virtue. Failure to interpret signs is, quite literally, everywhere in the book (Arabella frequently makes hand gestures which the men around her don’t understand; likewise, she’s usually incapable of “reading the room” she is in), but the greatest misapprehension is in her idea of good womanhood, and her environment’s:
“[…] I am afraid, if he was to commit Murder to please you, the Laws would make him suffer for it; and the World would be very free with its Censures on your Ladyship’s Reputation, for putting him upon such shocking Crimes.
[…] replied Arabella […] you kn[o]w as little in what the good Reputation of a Lady consists, as the Safety of a Man; for certainly the one depends intirely upon his Sword, and the other upon the Noise and Bustle she makes in the World.The Female Quixote, Charlotte Lennox, p. 128
This is, of course, diametrically opposed to ideals of womanhood in the 1750s, as Miss Glanville knows, and as another character, the Countess, reinforces later in the novel: asked to tell Arabella “her Adventures”, she replies gently but firmly: “The Word Adventures carries in it so Free and Licentious a Sound in the Apprehensions of People at this Period of Time, that it can hardly with Propriety be apply’d to those few and natural Incidents which comprise the History of a Woman of Honour.” She was born, she tells Arabella; she grew up; she met a man and married him, with her parents’ encouragement and consent; and that is the end of that. Arabella is shocked to discover that she has experienced not a single shipwreck, abduction, or case of false identity. The Countess is an interesting character, because she responds to Arabella’s infatuation with fictions by engaging her rationally: Arabella is capable of perfect reasoning when not discussing romances directly, and the scene where she and the Countess discuss the changing nature of virtue and vice depending upon historical context must be one of the most interesting conversations two women have with each other in the whole of eighteenth-century literature. It does not concern men; it concerns ethics, literature and history, all considered “serious” topics and all part of a classical education, and although it is done to disabuse a young woman of “madness”, it is done on her turf and on her terms, simultaneously gently demonstrating the limitations of fiction as a model for life and taking her intellectual capacities with the utmost seriousness.
The Countess disappears after this chapter, and the final cure of Arabella is left to a wise and elderly (and male) curate who has never appeared before in the book. This is probably because of some advice Samuel Richardson gave Lennox with regards to the ending, which also explains why the final chapters feel both rushed and spun out. It’s a shame that the Countess is not brought back; some scholars think this was Lennox’s original plan, and I have to say I would have preferred it. It would make more sense to use a character with whom we were already familiar, and it would serve also to reinforce Lennox’s interest in the nature of female power. It is an interest that the twenty-first century also shares, although we are in a different historical context. The book also possesses a strong flavour of the surreal. The tension between laughing at Arabella mistaking a carp-poaching gardener for a prince in disguise wishing to abduct her, and admiring her for her courage and consistency in adhering to principles that, though impractical and wrong-headed, give her a sense of self-worth, is potent. Should a brave production company be casting about for Bridgerton-alikes, a judicious reimagining of The Female Quixote would be fertile ground.
The Female Quixote was first published in 1752. My edition is by Oxford University Press, in their World’s Classics series, from 1998 (textual apparatus copyright 1989). There’s a newer edition from 2008.