Wednesday 24 February 2021

The Female Quixote at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

As interesting and exciting as it is to have the authors attend our discussion of their books, sometimes it’s nice to put on the comfy slippers and knock a book about without its creator in attendance. 

It was the turn of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, a novel in which the heroine, Arabella has been raised alone in a castle with little but seventeenth century French romances for company. Like the famous Spaniard, the books turn her head and she models her expectations of life, particularly romance, on them; expecting every man to be the noble hero of a hundred fights and every woman (of a certain class) to be bewitching beauties who may only admit their love at the end of the story when the couple have experienced years of adventure and highly-wrought emotion.

The book being founded on a single joke, the Dr Johnson Reading Circle had differing opinions on  how successfully it had told it, whether there were enough variations and indeed, whether it was a funny joke at all. The first few encounters take the Don Quixote route, a young man showing mild interest in Arabella is interpreted as a smitten suitor, a gardener’s scheme to steal carp is transformed into a lovelorn prince in a gardener’s disguise, and a woman hiding out in the countryside to give birth to a bastard becomes a tragic princess.

Then her cousins enter the story, Charles and Charlotte Glanville, (their father is also called Charles, he must have a very small baby naming book). Arabella’s Father had hoped she would marry Glanville time but the young man doesn’t exactly live up to her heroic ideals. He makes the ‘dreadful’ error of telling her that he’s interested in her so she banishes him from her presence. This sets the pattern for most book; Arabella does something ridiculous, Glanville winces in embarrassment but still loves Arabella and Miss Glanville sneers. This is broken up a little when a potential suitor who is seventeenth-century French romance savvy tries to seduce Arabella by telling his history in that style, with a battle against five-hundred enemies, three one true loves and a longing to reclaim his kingdom of Kent. However, that’s too many one true loves for Arabella and the book goes back to its previous pattern.

We talked about whether this repetition was a feature or a flaw. Whether Charlotte Lennox had failed to give variety to her situations or whether the book worked something like a sitcom, where all sorts of crazy events can happen within an episode but everything reverts to status quo by the beginning of the next one. It’s hard to know how original readers reacted to The Female Quixote but it may have been they appreciated the elements of predictability as a modern viewer enjoys a catchphrase in a sitcom. Another question about the humour in the book was about how ridiculous the eighteenth century romantic conventions were supposed to appear to the reader. Nowadays, those customs are as strange in themselves as the ones in the romances Arabella reads, was Lennox making a point about that or was that just a result of our distance from when the book was written?

One comic stand-out we all agreed upon was Arabella’s maid Lucy. The Sancho Panza to Arabella’s Quixote, she doesn’t suffer the same delusions but she is swept up into her mistress’s view of the world by her love and devotion. Her inability to understand or convey a message in Arabella’s high-flown style is a running gag as are the moments when she can’t fully become the maid that the romances expect her to be. She’s a little like Partridge in Tom Jones, and the two novels also share the technique of including funny chapter titles. These titles would have been displayed on loose leaves on a bookstall and intended to tempt the buyer to shell out for a whole copy. Chapter titles include; ‘Contains several Incidents, in which the Reader is expected to be extremely interested’, ‘A very Heroic Chapter’, ‘For the Shortness of which the Length of the next shall make Amends’, which is followed by, ‘Not as long as was first intended: But contains, however, a surprising Adventure on the Road’, and many more.

The penultimate chapter is titled, ‘Being, in the Author’s Opinion, the best Chapter in this History’. In this lengthy chapter, a doctor attempts to reason Arabella out of her delusions and succeeds. The doctor doing the arguing sounds a lot like Samuel Johnson, who Lennox did consult when writing The Female Quixote (as she did Richardson). The notion that Johnson may have written this chapter himself was suggested by Gentleman’s Magazine editor, John Mitford in 1848. Various textual analyses have been conducted on the chapter, looking at techniques, sentence lengths and word choices. Some have concluded that he did and others that he didn’t. We didn’t spend much time arguing this point and I suppose it’s for each reader to decide for themselves.

What we did agree on though, was that the ending seemed a missed opportunity. Earlier on, there had been a countess introduced, who had begun the process of arguing Arabella out of her worldview but she is discarded for the doctor character who the reader has never met before. Even more satisfying may have been a conclusion where Arabella argues herself out of her mistakes. Glanville goes through some variation of the sufferings the lovers do in her romances and had something happened for her to recognise this, to realise her expectations were too high and her view of the world faulty, then the ending may have landed better.

The reader’s enjoyment of The Female Quixote seemed to stem from their appraisal of Arabella herself. Those who did not enjoy it as much, found Arabella to be selfish, closed-minded and resistant to the weight of evidence she is shown that prove that the world is not like her romances. They found her willingly deceived and to be seemingly unaware that her actions could hurt other people. Those who enjoyed it, found Arabella to be intelligent, capable of learning and retaining vast amounts of information about the books she loves, books which give her a degree of power and control in her world she may not otherwise have. Her delusions make her believe that every man depends upon her favour to live, and the men around her find themselves bent to her will by her confidence. In a German translation, made two years after, the translator made subtle changes to make Arabella less assertive.

Talking about Elizabeth Carter, Hannah More and Fanny Burney, Johnson said; 

  “Three such women are not to be found; I know not where to find a fourth, except Mrs. Lennox, who is superior to them all.” What it was he saw in her? The Reading Circle were unsure but I feel it must be something to do with her self-confidence. From humble, practically unknown background, she made a living as a writer, just as Johnson had done. She had the confidence to attack Shakespeare at a time when Bardolatry was on the rise, not so much for his taking stories from other sources but for his changing them and (in her mind) missing their point. For example, Romeo and Juliet was first written as a warning against foolish, puppy-dog love which Shakespeare turns it into a celebration of it. For a man who thought Shakespeare a great but also greatly flawed writer, I can see him relishing in her iconoclasm.

Many of the Dr Johnson Reading Circle listened to the audio-book read by Juliet Stevenson, who brought the book to life. It may be that The Female Quixote is nothing more than a bit of fun, which time has ossified into ‘classic literature’ and a great performance is all that’s needed to rub some life back into it.

Wednesday 17 February 2021

Review: Zofloya, or The Moor by Charlotte Dacre

Victoria Loredani is not the messiah, she’s a very naughty girl. She’s the main character of Zofloya, or The Moor and the book goes to great trouble to both blame her for her descent into wickedness and to absolve her of blame. 

This descent is all her fault because she’s a terrible person who deserves great chunks of texts outlining how very bad she is, how her soul is organised upon evil principles and how even her ‘feelings of delight’ are ‘teemed with woe for others’. On the other hand, she was spoiled as a child and her mother left her father, moving in with the man who killed her father in a duel and generally setting a bad example. Then there’s the father of lies himself…

I like my gothic novels on the nuttier end and a novel that has adultery, a few stabbings, only one wrongful imprisonment and some (admittedly very in-depth) poisoning, is playing it a bit safe. There are a few good gothic bits, the reveal of the poisoned body, writhing in sores, but on the whole, it all felt a little undercooked. The writing had the stiltedness of a gothic novel but none of the breathless excitement. Our manipulative, evil protagonist is also a poor victim of her circumstances, a woman of agency who spends most of the book having things happen to her rather than making things happen. Even when she does take action, she follows the ideas of new bestie Zofloya. A gothic with few gasps (even gasps of laughter) is a rather anodyne thing.

Things picked up a little at the end, the Looney-Tunes-esque ‘temporary and very specific madness’ potion was a treat, as was the hangover it produced. Then there was the teen, stabbed multiple times and thrown off a ravine and the hilarious bandit reveal but it didn’t pick up enough to lift the book.

I can’t exactly call the book limp because it was so stiff. It was never a chore to read but nor was it a pleasure, I’ve got some more gothic coming up this year, I hope it properly catches light.

A small note on the Oxford edition, not only does it give away a spoiler on the back cover, not only did the endnotes tell me more about The Monk than Zofloya but it is riddled with more typos than any Oxford Classic I’ve ever read.

Wednesday 10 February 2021

A few thoughts on Bridgerton

One of the benefits of focusing on the eighteenth century is that the century can be as long as you like. Some centuries are confined to a hundred years but the eighteenth can go long, it can go back as far as the ‘glorious’ revolution of 1688 or reach forward as far as yesterday dinner time (or, more usually, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815). This means I could have the period known as ‘The Regency’ easily within my grasp for this website if I wanted to. There are times where I have dabbled in the time period but if I’m honest, I prefer the early to mid eighteenth century and leave all that Regency stuff to other people. I did watch Bridgerton, however.

To claim that Bridgerton has anything other than the most dubious links to history (or indeed reality) is a risky one indeed. I’ve not read the books, but the TV series has more to do with the tropes and foibles of the genre of regency romance than anything else. It’s funny because a  great deal of historical romance, even the bodice-ripperest, can be the result of very careful research, but Bridgerton is not. Claiming to be set in 1813, this is a Regency without the Prince Regent. George III is ill-disposed and his madness and outbursts are largely played for sentiment. The person with the Royal powers and prerogatives is Queen Charlotte.

This Queen Charlotte is a wonderful figure, narrow-eyed, capricious and scheming but humanised by her love for the King and pain at his illness. She’s nothing like the real Charlotte, who was a fond patron, particularly of natural sciences, but regarded as quiet and rather shy. The strangest part of the entire series was a discussion about Charlotte, where it is revealed that her and the King’s love ended slavery and allowed black people to be treated as equals and even be made Dukes as Duchessess. While it is true that Queen Charlotte and a number of the nobility are played by black actors, I had presumed this was an act of colour-blind casting like Armando Ianucci’s very enjoyable The Private History of David Copperfield. It seems completely strange to change the history of the world in the show to justify colour-blind casting the audience would have simply accepted as part of the fiction. 

(I've been watching videos on youtube about Bridgerton and there's a really interesting angle of colourism at play also, that the darkest skin character is the closest thing to a villain and most of the black characters are of lighter skin - not to mention the lack of any Asian named characters. A great video on that is found with this link. )

The main story in the series is about the romance that blossoms between Daphne Bridgerton, daughter of a Viscount, and Simon, a man who has come to sort his affairs out after his father has died and he has inherited the title of Duke of Hastings. They decide to pretend to be in love, he to keep predatory mothers out of his hair and she to raise her stock in the marriage market. It should come as no surprise that what starts out as pretence becomes truth. There are also the romantic and social lives of those around them, the wealthy and titled individuals who make up the ‘ton’.

The story takes place over a London season and is sharply and enjoyably narrated by Lady Whistledown, a pseudonymous gossip columnist that’s a cross between The Female Tatler and RIia Skeeter. Her spiky commentary is one of the most enjoyable elements of the programme and (along with Lady Danvers) a source of its spice and fun. 

From the trailer, I was expecting even more humour, although it leans more into drama. I was also expecting the Bridgertons themselves to be more scheming, possibly a down on their luck family hoping to make it big. Instead they are a well-to-do family with a warmth that is quite charming. My favourite character was the second eldest Bridgerton daughter, Violet. She could be described as a woman out of her time but seeing as the programme isn’t really of a time, she seems simply a snarky, funny, rather naive bookworm. My other favourite characters include the battleaxes Queen Charlotte and Lady Danvers. The men are a little more slim pickings, but Lord Simon really is very attractive, if a little brooding and needy, and his boxer buddy is a grounding influence.

The programme looks gorgeous. I was slightly distracted by bits of Bath (I was at the assembly rooms the day before they started filming) and other places I recognise but they are stitched together to make a lovely fantasy version of London and Grosvenor Square. There aren’t many productions where I am blown away by the wallpaper, but there are some beautiful wallpapers in this production. The costumes are, of course, something special as well. Daphne, in particular, has a number of very attractive dresses, in shades of blue, particularly sky blue. My favourite was this dress;

.. though she’s not particularly happy about wearing it. I liked the shape, the sheen and the flowers. I don’t know much about fashion or costume history, but I appreciated what I saw.

In terms of drama, there were some brilliant moments, I loved the moment in the Inn with Daphne and Simon when they finally talk plainly to each other. It could be because much of the plot is one where if the characters spoke straight to each other, nothing would happen and it was cathartic to have them actually do it. The women’s ignorance of how babies are made first comes up as a joke but becomes a plot point, highlighting the innocence with which the women are entering into marriage. I shortly plan to read The Memoirs of Emma Courtney by Mary Hays which implies in the blurb that it will also be looking at women’s education, particularly sex education.

Although there is big drama, it’s not a programme to take heavily, it’s well-made and enjoyable entertainment designed to binge. I did, however, find the accumulation of obstacles and problems throughout the episodes to be rather exhausting.I reckon most people who were inclined to watch Bridgerton have already done so by now, but I would recommend it and look forward to the second series. 

Wednesday 3 February 2021

Under the Glass: Readers in Fiction


Dan Brown famously says that he doesn’t read. Particularly, he doesn’t read fiction, preferring instead to use non-fiction to research his own novels but not reading anyone else’s. It shows in his writing. On the whole, writers are readers. I would consider myself a reader first, who occasionally makes forays into writing when I’ve filled my head with so many words, I can't help them spilling them out now. 

What I find unusual, is how rarely the characters in books are readers, especially as they are the creations of writers who invariably are. How often has a writer (usually in a mid-career slump) written about a writer, usually with a dissatisfying love life? Writers love writing about writers, especially about how special writers are, or what an emotional strain it is on the writer’s life. What’s interesting is that it’s very rare for these fictional writers to ever read anything. Real writers might be readers, but fictional ones are often as literate as Dan Brown or Garth Marenghi. 

My own Sidney Derrick is a writer, but his illiteracy is one of the principle jokes of the book. (On a slightly related note, it really annoyed me in The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas, when a professor and student of the eighteenth century spent their whole time talking about Derrida and never mentioned or read an eighteenth century author.)

Currently, I am reading The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox, which is about a woman who is delighted by reading, so delighted she uses some quite unsuitable books as the basis of her worldview and the influence of her action.  She follows a certain ‘type’ of reader to be found in books, the reader who can’t handle it. This reader is unduly influenced or cannot tell fiction apart from reality. We start with Don Quixote, driven mad by books of chivalry then onto Lennox’s Arabella, whose devotion to French romances may be less dangerous to those around her but make her seem ridiculous. Also looking silly is Catherine in Northanger Abbey, whose love of gothic fiction makes her expect a life more dramatic than it may be.

Novel-reading was itself a full moral panic at one point, the Gentleman’s Magazine (Samuel Johnson’s first London gig) said;  “Novels have been long and frequently regarded not as being merely useless to society, but even as pernicious, from the very indifferent morality, and ridiculous way of thinking, which they almost generally inculcate”. The people most at danger of corruption from books, especially novels, were women as their poor minds wouldn’t be able to cope with the strain.

Then there is the character for whom reading is a source of power. Matilda is the first example of this most people meet, she must be one of the keenest readers in literature and all that mental pressure gives her literal superpowers. Slightly different to Matilda are those characters like Frankenstein’s monster, who learn to speak and then read, actions that give them more agency. In The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, women have not been taught to read and it is a source of enormous power when Agnes Jemima is taught in order to become an Aunt. Although the reader for power is often an interesting and exciting one, they don’t usually have a ‘normal’ relationship with books, often being denied them in ways not so common in everyday life.

Another form of reader in books are those who are keepers of words. A little like the reader of power, they are a character who have an exceptional relationship with books in some way. My first thought is The Professor in Mistress Masham’s Repose by TH White, but his Merlin would also fit the role. Many of these figures are old men or wizards, keepers of arcane bookshops or hidden, magical libraries. They frequently are not the protagonist in a work though, and frequently pop up to help and then disappear.

The last sort of reader in fiction I can think of is the reader as set dressing. The example that instantly jumped in my mind was of Anastasia Steele from the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (I’ve read the first one). At the beginning of the book, she’s studying Literature at college, is given a first edition Tess of the D'Urbervilles (these characters have a magical way of obtaining first editions of things) and quickly finds herself chief editor at a publishers.  Yet, despite her love of books she never really seems to read and the books she’s read don’t seem to impact her. She’s far from the only character to have the light sprinkling of ‘into books’ to help her characterisation, but she’s a pretty clear example.

I’d like someone (maybe even me one day) to write a novel in which the main character is  a reader the way I am. Who spends significant time reading, who finds thoughts of current books or future books intruding as they do other things, who see books not as an escape from life but a general part of it. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read a book featuring someone who has that casual yet intense relationship with the written word and I think it would be something worth reading one day.