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.
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.
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.
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.