The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella, Charlotte Lennox - Essay

Charlotte Ramsay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella Charlotte Lennox

The following entry presents criticism of Lennox's novel The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella (1752).

Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote is part imitation of and part commentary on Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. Written in the mid-eighteenth century, among a rash of Cervantes imitations, Lennox's novel was by far the most popular and enduring of its kind. Simultaneously a critique of Cervantes' idealism and an appreciation of his humor, his irony, and his formal achievements, the novel has also been read as a feminist commentary on the consequences of women's estrangement from male society. Applauded by Lennox's contemporary readers, the novel was originally published with a prestigious dedication by Samuel Johnson to the Earl of Middlesex. It was eventually issued in a number of editions, some illustrated, and translated into German, French, and Spanish within her lifetime. Jane Austen took it as a model for her first novel, Northanger Abbey.

Biographical Information

The circumstances of Lennox's birth and childhood are only minimally known to biographers. Born probably in either 1729 or 1730, possibly in Gibraltar, she was the daughter of James Ramsay, a captain-lieutenant in the English army. About ten years after her birth, the family moved to New York, where her father seems to have been stationed at frontier outposts, presumably in very remote villages. Lennox herself was apparently an avid reader of romance novels in her childhood, perhaps in response to the boredom and seclusion of her family's living situations. Soon after her father's death (apparently in 1743), Lennox moved to London, where she would live for the rest of her life. Her writing trajectory went from poetry to novels to criticism to playwriting and back to novels again, though with no successes equal to that of The Female Quixote. She wrote four other novels—The Life of Harriot Stuart (1750), Henrietta (1758), Sophia (1762), and Euphemia (1790)—a collection of poetry, three plays, and Shakespear Illustrated; or, The Novels and Histories on Which the Plays of Shakespear Are Founded, Collected, and Translated (1753-54), an admired compilation of Shakespeare's sources, with some of the non-English works translated by Lennox herself. She also served as editor of her own periodical, The Lady's Museum (1760-61), in which she published Sophia in serial form. The burden of an unhappy marriage to Alexander Lennox stood in contrast to her valued and productive friendships with the likes of Johnson and Samuel Richardson, both of whom offered her professional support. Johnson served as her literary mentor, writing many dedications for her and suggesting various literary projects, including Shakespear Illustrated. Acquaintance with these illustrious literary figures was not enough, however, to spare her the destitution of her final years, when she sometimes struggled simply to feed herself off charity from the Royal Literary Fund.

Plot and Major Characters

The heroine of The Female Quixote, Arabella, is a privileged young woman, the daughter of a marquis, who has been raised in a castle in isolation from society. A key palliative to her boredom is her father's store of historical romances, which Arabella pores through then accepts as guides for her behavior in society. The novels' chivalric ideals become Arabella's. As Don Quixote had done before her, Arabella embarks on a series of adventures in the countryside. She also visits Bath and London, where she finds suitors in the false knight Sir George Bellmour and in her cousin, Sir Charles Glanville, both of whom she sees as residents with her in the medieval France of the romances she read as a child. Glanville—aristocratic, sophisticated, and committed to Arabella throughout—contrasts the foppish, ridiculous, distracted Bellmour, who, like Arabella, reads romances voraciously. Lennox provides a foil for Arabella in Sir George's sister, the flirtatious Charlotte. While Arabella initially prefers Sir Bellmour, in the end a learned cleric, or “Divine,” helps her distinguish reality from fantasy, and Arabella marries her patient and loving cousin, Sir Glanville. Throughout, the novel is interspersed with Arabella's speaking aloud long passages from the romances that have distorted her view of reality.

Major Themes

The novel's most evident concern is the dangerous powers of romance novels to affect a young woman's moral sense. Only after she is disabused of her illusions and returns to the path of good sense is the novel's heroine rewarded with happiness in marriage. Arabella illustrates in her character the eighteenth-century feminine virtues of goodness and simplicity. Other themes include the rewards of at least some immersion in fantasy. Arabella's quixotism seems to function in part as a temporary antidote to her repressed life. It offers the heroine an opportunity to act, introducing the theme of women's access to identity and power through art. Furthermore, the novel explores the problems for women as artists and the relationship of writing, and of fantasy in general, to sexuality, gender, and authority. Some critics suggest that the novel takes as its central themes the nature of literary genre in general, functioning as criticism—in particular, criticism of the romance genre—and exploring connections between philosophy and narrative form, as well as aspects of what some identify as “female discourse.” The novel explores various dichotomies and oppositions: realism and idealism, sanity and hysteria, the romance and the novel, female and male, and fiction and history, among others.

Critical Reception

In both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, The Female Quixote was appreciated for its astute imitation of Cervantes, for its considerably witty imitations of romance novels, for its charming and ultimately virtuous heroine, and for its moral vision. Critics also identify a meticulously constructed plot and refined language, both of which were emphasized literary values in the eighteenth century. While Lennox's novel received less critical attention in the nineteenth century, when it was perceived as insufficiently engaged in a treatment of social and moral themes, it regained the interest of commentators in the twentieth century. Critics increasingly responded to its social criticism—not only its incisive depiction of eighteenth-century society but also its critique of that society—and to its serious treatment of its themes. Many contemporary critics read Arabella as a woman artist in search of access to expression and as a woman in search of identity against the constrictions of a society governed by men. Lennox is attributed with more and more sophisticated accomplishments as an author who was engaged in somewhat subversive criticism and historical revisionism. The Female Quixote has also been regarded as critical to the development of the English novel in general, and Lennox is studied in relationship to such literary groundbreakers as Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, and Samuel Richardson. As a text of interest to feminist scholars in particular, the novel has become a valuable tool in the study of the relationship between gender and genre and between women and art.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Poems on Several Occasions (poetry) 1747

The Life of Harriot Stuart. 2 vols. (novel) 1750

Memoirs of Maximilian de Bethune, Duke of Sully [translator] (memoirs) 1751

The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella. 2 vols. (novel) 1752

Shakespear Illustrated; or, The Novels and Histories on Which the Plays of Shakespear Are Founded, Collected, and Translated [editor and translator]. 3 vols. (criticism) 1753-54

Philander: A Dramatic Pastoral (play) 1757

Henrietta. 2 vols. (novel) 1758

The Lady's Museum [editor] (essays, prose, poetry) 1760-61

Sophia. 2 vols. (novel) 1762

The Sister (play) 1769

Old City Manners (play) 1775

Euphemia. 4 vols. (novel) 1790

*“The Art of Coquetry” was originally published within Poems on Several Occasions.

†This play is an adaptation of Lennox's novel Henrietta.

‡This play is a reworking of the comedy Eastward Hoe! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston.

Duncan Isles (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Isles, Duncan. “Appendix: Johnson, Richardson, and The Female Quixote.” In The Female Quixote, edited by Margaret Dalziel, pp. 418-27. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

[In the following essay, Isles scrutinizes Lennox's literary relationship with Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson.]

When she was writing The Female Quixote, Mrs. Lennox was fortunate in receiving both literary and practical assistance from Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson. Johnson had already played an active part in furthering her career.1 By introducing her to Richardson,2 he provided her with a particularly valuable new ally, who helped her...

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Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date May 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Spacks, Patricia Meyer. “The Subtle Sophistry of Desire: Dr. Johnson and The Female Quixote.Modern Philology 85, no. 4 (May 1988): 532-42.

[In the following essay, Spacks considers Samuel Johnson's response to the themes of truth, fiction, and desire in Lennox's novel.]

“Truth is … not often welcome for its own sake,” Samuel Johnson wrote in Rambler no. 96; “it is generally unpleasing because contrary to our wishes and opposite to our practice.”1 In the story Johnson constructs, the personified figure of Falsehood wins popular approval “because she took the shape that was most engaging, and always suffered herself to...

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Deborah Ross (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ross, Deborah. “The Female Quixote: A Realistic Fairy Tale.” In The Excellence of Falsehood: Romance, Realism, and Women's Contribution to the Novel, pp. 94-109. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1991.

[In the following essay, Ross expounds on Lennox's interests in “the relation between philosophy and narrative form.”]

We are handsome, my dear Charlotte, very handsome and the greatest of our Perfections is, that we are entirely insensible of them ourselves.

—Jane Austen1

Charlotte Lennox's second novel, The Female Quixote (1752), delighted...

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Helen Thomson (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomson, Helen. “Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote: A Novel Interrogation.” In Living By The Pen: Early British Women Writers, edited by Dale Spender, pp. 113-25. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Thomas regards Lennox as crucial to the development of the English novel.]

With the appearance of The Female Quixote in 1752, Charlotte Lennox became not only one of the early mothers of the novel, but also one of the novel's earliest critics. As in Miguel de Cervantes' great novel Don Quixote, to which Charlotte Lennox's title pays tribute, in her second work of fiction she was simultaneously inventing and...

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David Marshall (essay date January 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Marshall, David. “Writing Masters and ‘Masculine Exercises’ in The Female Quixote.Eighteenth-Century Fiction 5, no. 2 (January 1993): 105-35.

[In the following essay, Marshall examines the gender issues explored in Lennox's novel, focusing especially on the author's apparent commentary on the societal constraints regarding female artistry.]

In book 2 of The Female Quixote, or The Adventures of Arabella the narrative of Arabella's history opens up to include the story of a character named Miss Groves. Following the death of her father, Arabella's uncle and her cousin Glanville have left for London, hoping for a “Reformation” that will...

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Christine Roulston (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Roulston, Christine. “Histories of Nothing: Romance and Femininity in Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote.Women's Writing 2, no. 1 (1995): 25-42.

[In the following essay, Roulston examines the interrelationship between femininity and the romance genre as well as between the novel and the romance.]

In recent years, Charlotte Lennox's novel The Female Quixote has received growing critical attention as a work which addresses the complex relationship between femininity and the romance form.1 Published at a time when the distinction between romance and the novel was still ill-defined, Lennox's novel stages the confrontation between...

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Wendy Motooka (essay date January 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Motooka, Wendy. “Coming to a Bad End: Sentimentalism, Hermeneutics, and The Female Quixote.Eighteenth-Century Fiction 8, no. 2 (January 1996): 251-70.

[In the following essay, Motooka analyzes the ending of The Female Quixote by addressing the feminist significance of quixotism.]

Readers of Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752) often leave the book feeling that the heroine, Arabella, has come to a bad end—in both senses of the phrase. Until the penultimate chapter, Arabella is a strong, independent, admirably spirited woman. The final scenes of the novel, however, depict her as defeated, humiliated, and subordinated by a...

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Debra Malina (essay date January 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Malina, Debra. “Rereading the Patriarchal Text: The Female Quixote, Northanger Abbey, and the Trace of the Absent Mother.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 8, no. 2 (January 1996): 271-92.

[In the following excerpt, Malina compares The Female Quixote and Northanger Abbey as “female” texts.]

Would the veil in which Mrs. Tilney had last walked, or the volume in which she had last read, remain to tell what nothing else was allowed to whisper? No: whatever might have been the General's crimes, he had certainly too much wit to let them sue for detection.1

Jane Austen


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Ellen Gardiner (essay date spring 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gardiner, Ellen. “Writing Men Reading in Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote.1Studies in the Novel 28, no. 1 (spring 1996): 1-11.

[In the following essay, Gardiner argues that The Female Quixote should be read as literary criticism.]

The Female Quixote (1752) has remained a fairly marginal text in twentieth-century histories of the novel because any number of critics have explicated it as primarily revealing Charlotte Lennox's and women's vexed relationship to the romance.2 These readings neglect, however, Lennox's more complex argument about the way in which the term romance functions in her novel. In The...

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Joseph F. Bartolomeo (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bartolomeo, Joseph F. “Female Quixotism v. ‘Feminine’ Tragedy: Lennox's Comic Revision of Clarissa.” In New Essays on Samuel Richardson, edited by Albert J. Rivero, pp. 163-75. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Bartolomeo deliberates on the intertextual relationship between The Female Quixote and Samuel Richardson's novels.]

In regard to gender and eighteenth-century fiction, one of the largest obstacles to essentialism is the career of Samuel Richardson, whose plots, characters and narrative techniques both defined and constricted possibilities for women writers. An examination of his influence on one of his...

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Thomas H. Schmid (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schmid, Thomas H. “‘My Authority’: Hyper-Mimesis and the Discourse of Hysteria in The Female Quixote.Rocky Mountain Review 51, no. 1 (1997): 21-35.

[In the following essay, Schmid reconsiders previous discussions of hysteria in Lennox's novel.]

The purpose of this paper is to re-open, from a feminist perspective, the question of female “madness” (specifically, “hysteria”) in The Female Quixote, a question that has been largely elided in the current criticism. It has been commonplace to consider Charlotte Lennox's novel as primarily an emplotment of female power in which, as Patricia Meyer Spacks observes, “a young woman with no...

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Mary Patricia Martin (essay date fall 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Martin, Mary Patricia. “‘High and Noble Adventures’: Reading the Novel in The Female Quixote.Novel 31, no. 1 (fall 1997): 45-62.

[In the following essay, Martin presents Lennox's novel as a study of literary genres.]

Near the end of Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote, the heroine Arabella falls into a dangerous fever, the consequence of having thrown herself into the Thames to escape—for the sake of her “immortal Glory”—the ravishers she imagines are pursuing her (363). Afraid that she is near death, she “desir[es] with great Earnestness the Assistance of some worthy Divine” to prepare her for this eventuality (366)....

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Eric Rothstein (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rothstein, Eric. “Woman, Women, and The Female Quixote.” In Augustan Subjects, edited by Albert J. Rivero, pp. 249-75. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Rothstein views Lennox's novel as a struggle for autonomy by both Lennox and her character Arabella.]


Readers of Henry Fielding's Covent-Garden Journal of 24 March 1752 (no. 24) found the greatest British Cervantean, author of Don Quixote in England and The History of … Joseph Andrews. … Written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, enthusiastic about “a Book called, THE FEMALE...

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Erin F. Labbie (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Labbie, Erin F. “History as ‘Retro’: Veiling Inheritance in Lennox's The Female Quixote.Bucknell Review 42, no. 1 (1998): 79-97.

[In the following essay, Labbie asserts that Arabella's refashioning of narratives and history subverts the didactic nature of the romance novel.]

The effects of Romance and true History are not very different.

—Clare Reeves, The Progress of Romance

Truth and appearances and reality, power … [woman] is—by virtue of her inexhaustible aptitude for mimicry—the living support of all the staging/production of the...

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Scott Paul Gordon (essay date summer 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gordon, Scott Paul. “The Space of Romance in Lennox's Female Quixote.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 38, no. 3 (summer 1998): 499-516.

[In the following essay, Gordon argues that while Lennox's novel critiques the genre of romance, it does not reject the genre entirely.]


Charlotte Lennox's Female Quixote (1752) seems to join a pervasive eighteenth-century effort to dispel as “unreal” and dangerous the romance tradition that English readers had valued for two hundred years. Lennox's heroine, deluded by reading romance, seems to emblematize the irrelevancy of romance to “real...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Craft, Catherine A. “Reworking Male Models: Aphra Behn's Fair Vow-Breaker, Eliza Haywood's Fantomina, and Charlotte Lennox's Female Quixote.Modern Language Review 86, no. 4 (October 1991): 821-38.

Theorizes that Behn, Haywood, and Lennox each encoded a “female discourse” within their otherwise conventional texts.

Doody, Margaret Anne. Introduction to The Female Quixote, edited by Margaret Dalziel, pp. i-xxiii. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Provides an overview of Lennox's life and literary output.

Dorn, Judith. “Reading Women Reading History:...

(The entire section is 516 words.)