Henri Petter (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: Petter, Henri. “The Pernicious Novels Exposed: Female Quixotism.” In The Early American Novel, pp. 46-59. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971.
[In the following essay, Petter emphasizes Tenney's didactic tone in Female Quixotism.]
Mrs. Tabitha Tenney published in 1801 a novel modeled after Don Quixote and meant to be a warning against romantic fiction: Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon. Dorcasina has been reading too many novels ever since she was a young girl; as a result she has imbibed notions difficult to conciliate with the demands made on her by a normal existence among people not similarly influenced by novel-reading.1
From the outset Mrs. Tenney's heroine is predisposed to respond to all the dangerous influences that may be conveyed by fiction. Her romantic turn of mind2 conditions her attitude toward novels and, through them, toward sober life. This peculiar receptivity of Dorcasina was of course purposely invented and exploited by Mrs. Tenney to achieve her didactic aim. It is this intention of hers, to expose the dangers of novel-reading, that is first to be considered.3 Her purpose is very much a reality throughout the book, however rewarding and enjoyable writing the burlesque may have turned out to be.4 Mrs. Tenney's message may therefore be dissociated from its comic literary form, as indeed it must have been by the contemporary readers who welcomed her indictment of the modern novel.5 Her lustily exaggerated attack on fiction can easily be corroborated and supplemented by references to the writings and opinions of others more directly and sternly hostile to the novel.6
Mrs. Tenney dedicated her book “To all Columbian Young Ladies, who Read Novels and Romances” (1:iii).7 Her heroine is, at the beginning of the novel, just such a young lady: the dedication, and the choice of the heroine, are not accidental or mere matters of convention. It was the ladies who were commonly held to constitute the body of novel-readers,8 and especially the young ladies who had leisure and opportunity to read much fiction. Moreover, being young, they were liable to be strongly impressed and possibly lastingly influenced by their reading.9 Being ladies, they were per definitionem romantically inclined, that is, open to suggestions and appeals to the imagination, the fancy, the feelings.10 Being young ladies, finally, they were thought to respond with particular warmth to the subject of love, so much in the foreground of novels and romances.11
Novels and romances were lumped together by Mrs. Tenney, as they were by most opponents of fiction among her contemporaries.12 There is no need for a detailed discussion of the terms here; it may be stated generally that the criticism of the novel took mainly the form of an attack against the romantic and sensational treatment of the theme of love in the fiction of the day,13 and that other strictures were subordinate to, and a consequence of, that fundamental objection. Mrs. Tenney's Female Quixotism clearly illustrates this attitude of disapproval.
The novels of the day were often declared by their authors to be based on truth.14 Mrs. Tenney did not miss her opportunity of making fun of the pretense. The story of Dorcasina is “a true picture of real life,” “a true uncoloured history” (1:iii); at the same time Mrs. Tenney testified to the authenticity of her tale only by referring to a fictional precedent, the authority of Don Quixote. In other words, her book is as little a report from life as the writings of other authors who rely patently on literary models or on pure invention.
Just as Don Quixote set out to realize ideas and ideals fashioned out of the romances he had made himself so thoroughly familiar with, Dorcasina expects to find life a counterpart of the versions of it offered by the novelists. For her head “had been turned by the unrestrained perusal of Novels and Romances” (1:iv),15 and she is governed by the “Romantic Opinions” so acquired. How has this come about? Handicapped by the romantic inclination already referred to, Dorcasina is also the victim of circumstances beyond her power to control. She early loses her mother and is then brought up by her father in a remote Pennsylvania village. Her mother's death is a crucial calamity: “At the age of three years, this child had the misfortune to lose an excellent mother, whose advice would have pointed out to her the plain rational path of life; and prevented her imagination from being filled with the airy delusions and visionary dreams … with which the indiscreet writers of that fascinating kind of books, denominated Novels, fill the heads of artless young girls, to their great injury, and sometimes to their utter ruin” (1:5).16 Since Mrs. Tenney was speaking to young ladies and future mothers, her stress on a mother's educational role was an absolute necessity. It is also clear that Mr. Sheldon is found not to have attended to his duties properly.17 He has failed to make up for the maternal advice Dorcasina did not receive; he should have pointed out to his daughter not just her everyday duties but the part that novels are allowed to play in a girl's life. This specific error of Sheldon is accounted for, though it cannot be excused: a great reader himself, Sheldon reads novels as a relaxation from studying history. When his daughter follows his example, he does not make sure that she observes like himself the relative importance of the departments of instruction and entertainment. Dorcasina is quickly fascinated18 by novels and, as she later confesses, becomes quite incapable of more serious and informative reading.19
Her reading shapes her imagination according to definite patterns that are basic to romantic fiction but, from the point of plain common sense, mere “airy delusions and visionary dreams.” Dorcasina's other faults combine with her romantic inclinations to render her particularly vulnerable: she is vain of her appearance and sensibility, and she is stubborn. It is due to her vanity that she likens her position and appeal to that of many heroines of romances (with whom she may well have in common the pathetic attribute of being motherless); her principal vision is that of being swept off her feet by a perfect lover. It is owing to her obstinacy that, when convinced of having met that ideal lover, no reasoning, and not even the evidence of her senses, can make her realize that she may, after all, be terribly wrong.
Having once envisioned herself as a young lady compelling love20 and merely waiting for the all-accomplished lover to turn up, Dorcasina no longer heeds her very real qualities. Yet they are by no means negligible: “She had received from nature a good understanding, a lively fancy, an amiable cheerful temper, and a kind and affectionate heart” (1:6). This is confirmed by Mrs. Stanly, a neighbor and faithful friend, long after Dorcasina has started making a fool of herself by trying to translate her romance-formed notions of love into principles of practicable social behavior: “Miss Sheldon is possessed of an amiable disposition, and an excellent heart; and, on every other subject but one, her understanding is strong, and her judgment good; and in her youth her person was tolerably pleasing” (2:37).
Dorcasina's appearance is pleasing enough, though Mrs. Tenney could not keep from poking fun at the superlative beauties of the conventional novel-heroine:
Now I suppose it will be expected that, in imitation of sister novel writers (for the ladies of late seem to have almost appropriated this department of writing) I should describe her as distinguished by the elegant form, delicately turned limbs, auburn hair, alabaster skin, heavenly languishing eyes, silken eyelashes, rosy cheeks, aquiline nose, ruby lips, dimpled chin, and azure veins, with which almost all our heroines of romance are indiscriminately decorated. In truth she possessed few of those beauties, in any great degree. She was of a middling stature, a little embonpoint, but neither elegant nor clumsy. Her complexion was rather dark; her skin somewhat rough; and features remarkable neither for beauty nor deformity. Her eyes were grey and full of expression, and her whole countenance rather pleasing than otherwise. In short, she was a middling kind of person, like the greater part of her countrywomen; such as no man would be smitten with at first sight, but such as any man might love upon intimate acquaintance.
The first part of this passage contains something like Dorcasina's own estimate of herself. But when her first lover comes, he sees her as she is in reality and conforms to the pattern of behavior predicted by Mrs. Tenney—which is to say, too, that he disappoints Dorcasina.
The poor girl feels all the more painfully let down as she has experienced contrasting emotions since she first heard of Lysander's coming. At first she was rather chilled at the businesslike way in which their meeting was arranged for by their fathers: “She would, to be sure, have been better pleased, had their acquaintance commenced in a more romantic manner” (1:8). The reader, who does not know what the “more romantic manner” may be, will learn by reading on: he will then see Dorcasina respond most warmly to a handsome stranger playing the flute all by himself in Dorcasina's favorite grove; he will find her moved and interested when discovering in the wood a letter addressed to her by an adorer she has not yet met; and he will see her fall in love at merely hearing that a gentleman has arrived at her father's house, an officer wounded while fighting the Indians and unable to pursue his journey home.
There is, in addition to the initial disappointment just mentioned, another feature about her designated fiancé that is unpleasant to Dorcasina's sensitive nature: she surmises that, coming from Virginia, Lysander must be a slave-holder, and her humanitarian notions revolt at the very idea of the sufferings he must cause and tolerate. The idea of a young girl compassionately suffering with the slaves is not necessarily to be ridiculed; it soon becomes plain that Mrs. Tenney is not criticizing that particular emotional reaction but rather Dorcasina's tendency to sentimentalize all subjects and to take herself too seriously in the role of the sorrowing sympathizer. The consequence of feeling in extremes is naturally a blunting and leveling of the emotions.21 When a clandestine suitor of Dorcasina is described as looking very much the worse for wear because of a drubbing he has received, the girl's grief is therefore described as follows: “Dorcasina had taken to her bed, with marks of as great sorrow as ever was experienced for the death of a lap-dog, or favourite parrot” (1:67). Dorcasina's maid Betty, a commonsensical creature who knows her lady quite well, is shrewdly aware of the heroine's tendency to play her emotional roles. She quickly transforms Dorcasina's misgivings at the prospect of marrying a withholder of freedom into the anticipation of turning into a giver of freedom herself: why shouldn't she emancipate the slaves, once she has become Lysander's wife?
So it is with high expectations restored that Dorcasina meets Lysander. Her hopes seem about to be fulfilled, for this is what meets her eye: “His person was noble and commanding; his countenance open and liberal; and his address manly and pleasing” (1:8). What with her opinion of her charms, she now fully counts upon love taking its course, a course that she will outline on a later occasion: “… The man to whom I unite myself in marriage, must first behold me, and at a glance be transfixed to the heart, and I too sir, must conceive at the same time a violent passion for him. In short, our love must be sudden, ardent, violent, and mutual. Matches made upon this foundation can alone be productive of lasting felicity” (2:66). Events do not conform to this pattern, however. Lysander is formal and respectful but not ardent, and Dorcasina is at first so taken aback that she appears unduly reticent and laconic. Yet all is not lost. Dorcasina regrets her coolness, and in the course of his stay with the Sheldons, Lysander evidently falls in love with the girl. Dorcasina, an obedient daughter who loves her father truly, might now reasonably be expected to accept the offer of a young man who has much to recommend him. She is very eager to have his first letter, in which Lysander is sure to ask for permission to write to her as her accepted suitor. But the letter is another blow to Dorcasina's image-making. It is true to the young man's qualities: “His understanding was rather solid than brilliant, and much improved by education and travel. His ideas of domestic happiness were just and rational; and he judged from what he had observed, that an agreeable matrimonial connexion was much the happiest state in life” (1:8).
Dorcasina, who has been seeing and talking to Lysander for weeks, should by now know what he is like, but she does not because she relies only in part upon her observation and much more on the rules of behavior as taught by the romantic novelists. This reliance explains Dorcasina's reaction to Lysander's letter:
Upon the perusal of this letter, Dorcasina experienced but one sentiment, and that was mortification. She read it over and over again; and was, to the last degree, chagrined at its coldness. She compared it with various letters in her favourite authors; and found it so widely different in style and sentiment, that she abhorred the idea of a connexion with a person who could be the author of it. What added greatly to her disgust was, that he said not a word of her personal charms, upon which she so much valued herself. Not even the slightest compliment to her person; nothing of angel or goddess, raptures or flames, in the whole letter.
The girl clearly sets great store by the forms of courtship. Conventional clichés, expressions, and ideas are to her the sum of an emotion, and the closer they approximate the precedents of romance, the more genuine she judges them to be. The protestations of love have an absolute value; if those addressed to her are very much below par, that is an offense against love and an indication of inadequacy in her lover. Moreover, Lysander insults her personally by neglecting to flatter her.
The Lysander episode is dealt with in the first two chapters and sixteen pages of Female Quixotism, which runs to twenty-six chapters and nearly four hundred pages. The twenty-year-old Dorcasina is there shown renouncing common sense with regard to love and marriage. We are to understand that she could, by marrying Lysander, easily have overcome her...
(The entire section is 6240 words.)