Tabitha Gilman Tenney Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Tabitha Gilman Tenney 1762-1837

(Born Tabitha Gilman) American novelist.

Tabitha Tenney is known to have published only a single work, the novel Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon (1801), which is considered both a parody of the sentimental novel and a satire of the social and political inequities that existed in the United States during her lifetime. Tenney has been noted for exposing the socially restrictive roles to which women were expected to adhere, as well as for her ability to combine comic elements with an unsentimental view of life.

Biographical Information

Tenney was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, on April 7, 1762. The eldest child of Samuel Gilman and Lydia Robinson Giddings, she was raised in an educated, religious, and politically active household. While there is scant documentation of Tenney's life, biographers speculate that as the oldest child in the family she stayed at home to help care for her six siblings after her father's death in 1778. The diaries of Patty Rogers, who also lived in Exeter, provide the principal source of information regarding Tenney's character. Rogers described Tenney as someone whom she found particularly repellent, although the diarist admitted that she could not fully explain her opinion of Tenney. This characterization may have been colored by the fact that Rogers was a rival for the affections of Dr. Samuel Tenney, a surgeon who became Tenney's husband in 1788. The couple moved to Washington, D.C., after 1800, where Dr. Tenney served as a congressman until his death in 1816. Public records and family histories describe Tenney as “accomplished” and, as evidence of this, Tenney edited a textbook of writings for young women entitled The Pleasing Instructor (1799). This volume covered such subjects as literature, music, and geography. In 1801, Tenney published Female Quixotism, which was well-received by contemporary readers and reviewers. Tenney returned to Exeter following her husband's death. She died in 1837 after a brief illness.

Major Works

Tenney's Female Quixotism is modeled after both Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605) and Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1762). The novel centers on Dorcasina Sheldon's romantic entanglements with different suitors. In all these relationships, Dorcasina is guided by a desire for the kind of romantic love that is exhibited in the sentimental novels she reads. By the end of the narrative, Dorcasina is an old maid who has knowingly traded opportunities for marriage and a conventional life in order to pursue an unfulfilled, idealized romance. Tenney's depiction of her protagonist and her refusal to supply the novel with a redemptive ending have led critics to view Female Quixotism as both a parody of the sentimental novel of the eighteenth century and as a work that cautions readers against the romantic illusions encouraged by the genre. At the same time, Tenney's novel exposes the limited options for women in Jeffersonian America and suggests the ambivalence of the period regarding class and racial issues.

Critical Reception

Female Quixotism was a popular work during Tenney's lifetime and went through five printings between 1801 and 1841. Based on this single novel, Tenney has attained a reputation as a significant early American novelist. Scholars assert that her work contributes to a greater understanding of the genre of the sentimental novel and serves as a critique of early American society, particularly concerning the limited prospects for women during this time. Cathy Davidson argues that one of Tenney's primary goals was to promote critical reading for women when such literary endeavors were not encouraged. Davidson explains: “Female Quixotism is a more subtle how-not-to-read-a-novel novel. Tenney allegorizes the reading process and turns it upon itself; one must be a resisting reader, a critical reader, … able to read the context in which the text is read.” Cynthia Miecznikowski, however, suggests that Tenney's novel should be read as a parody of the romance novel rather than simply a satire of the reading and interpreting processes themselves. Miecznikowski reasons that “if we read Tenney's novel as parody …, it unmasks its own textuality, suspending satiric judgment, deferring moral didacticism, and leaving its readers to judge the text on its own terms.” Given Tenney's adept use of humor in her novel, critics also find that Female Quixotism serves as an example of an emerging comic sensibility in American literature. In the late twentieth century, several new editions of Tenney's novel were published. Critics Jean Nienkamp and Andrea Collins conclude that Female Quixotism, while popular in its own time, still offers an enlightening look at eighteenth-century literature and contemporary social issues.