Wednesday 3 March 2021

My own thoughts on 'The Female Quixote'

I had a few of my own thoughts about The Female Quixote. It was a book I’ve had a very long time but was a little intimidated by. Even after I had read her Sophia, I still found it threatening on the shelf and when I was forced to read it as part of the Dr Johnson Reading Circle, I was expecting it to be a long, dull trudge.Therefore, it was a great surprise to me that this is a lovely, cuddly teddy bear of a book and its biggest weakness may be its light and fluffy and inconsequential nature than the heaviness I feared.

The set up is similar to Don Quixote, like Alonso Quixano, Arabella reads too many romances and begins to base her view of the world and her conduct on them, leading to various shenanigans. The Don is engaged by 16th century French and Spanish romances about great knights and courtly love, Arabella is enamored with their 17th century ancestors, like Scudery’s Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus. I can’t say I’ve read these later works (though I have dabbled with the earlier works like Ariosto and The Song of Roland) but they seem to be equally absurd tales of impossible love and ludicrous derring-do. 

The main difference between Don Quixote and The Female Quixote is not the gender of the protagonist or the exact type of romances which turn their heads, but the author’s attitude to those romances. Miguel de Cervantes seems to genuinely hate the books he is riffing on and to feel they are a real menace to society, in the first book, Don Quixote is a dangerous figure and his attempts at being a chivalrous knight cause people real harm. It makes sense for a man, coming home crippled from a war and having been held for ransom, to have a dim view of books that glorified such stuff. 

Charlotte Lennox, on the other hand, seems to have an affectionate view of the romances in The Female Quixote, showing a vast knowledge of them and a fondness which comes across in how she handles Arabella. The character may be ridiculous for treating such trash as real and using it as a source of wisdom and advice but (with the exception a few lines from the doctor at the end) it seems the biggest harm she causes is by embarrassing those around her.

At first, it’s hard to see why Glanville still has affection for a woman who is so irritating and who makes him bite ‘his lips almost through with madness’ but after a while, Arabella grew on me. The first part which made me laugh out loud was when he admitted he hadn’t read any of the books she keeps referring to and so she pulls out tome after tome from her library and brings them into the garden. He’s intimidated by their sheer volume but pretends to read the (lengthy) section she highlights. Then she comes back to chat with him about the section and he pretends to have read it, badly. It’s a section that reminds me of pretending to know about someone’s favourite band to try and get close to them.

Beyond being a comfort in her lonely child and being misfiled in the ‘history’ section of the library, there are some good reasons Arabella invests herself so fully in the romances. They are books where the women, although under the risk of constant kidnap, have a great deal of power. In following the example of the women in her books, she dictates the pace of any romantic encounter and determines the outcomes. She is impervious to beaus trying to flirt with her or other romantic chancers and assumes that every man depends on her good favour and will do anything to keep it. This belief then affects the behaviour of the men, who work very hard to stay in her favour. For Arabella, the ultimate punishment she can give someone is to remove that favour and banish the man from her presence, which would cause him to fall ill and die if she doesn’t order him not to. This gives her confidence and agency that other women in the book do not have.

Arabella’s monomania can grow a little wearing. We hear the names of the characters and off-hand references to their adventures so often that it begins to remind of a Stewart Lee joke, the way he stretches it past being funny and then continues stretching until it’s funny again. The book seems to assume that the reader has at least a passing knowledge of the romances being parodied but even if they don’t, there’s (far more) than enough information to get it. However, there were enough genuinely good jokes to revive the reader after long discussions of Alitira and co. The chapter titles were often funny, in the teasing manner that many of Tom Jones’s chapter titles have and I really liked the running gag of Arabella comparing Miss Glanville to some of the dodgier characters in the romances.

The very best part of the novel, for me, was Book 6, in which a Sir George, a romance-savvy would-be-suitor ‘tells his history’. It was such a good idea to have him essentially tell a fully-realised but miniature version of the grand romances to get a proper idea of the sort of books that has captured Arabella so much. It gives Charlotte Lennox room to show the appeal of such fiction, the breathlessness of action and romance, the almost surreal repetition of falling head-over-heels with the most beautiful woman who has ever been (though three times with three women) and the instant tragedies which impede those love affairs. We also get Arabella’s breathless belief as Sir George talks about being the rightful King of Kent or fighting five-hundred men with his back to a tree. On top of that, the snarky remarks by Sir Charles (the Glanville’s father) and the eye-rolls of Glanville himself. It was such a wonderful celebration and take-down of a genre and I loved it entirely.

But all romances must have a happy ending, and Arabella’s is when she is talked out of her fantasies by a wise doctor who speaks in the voice of Samuel Johnson (whose Rambler had a puff earlier in the book). There is some speculation that the penultimate chapter was written by Johnson himself but I’m not convinced. There are proper scholars who have looked at sentence length, word choice and other technical aspects of style and concluded both ways - I simply don’t feel like it is direct Johnson. We know that Lennox did talk to Johnson (and Richardson) about the novel when it was in progress and it seems far more likely that she wrote the chapter having discussed it with him and using phrases and arguments he might have said. I have no proof for that, it’s just how it feels to me. Aside from anything else, Johnson thought ‘heroick fiction’ was the very best reading material for children and annoyed Hester Thrale when he dismissed specifically written children’s books as not being engaging enough for them.

I was describing this book to a teacher friend, who said that Arabella sounded like she was on the autistic spectrum. I generally don’t like applying such modern concepts to people, real or imagined, who existed before the concepts existed, but it did make sense to me. Arabella’s fixedness on her favourite books, managing to bring them up and apply them to things they don’t fit with, is a very common trait for those on the spectrum. As was the fact she often doesn’t notice, and frequently misreads the effect her actions and words have on those around her. Even her fondness for looser gowns and dislike of the bustle in places like Bath’s Pump Room could be seen as results of the hyper-sensitivity many on the autistic spectrum experience. It’s not how I would naturally interpret the book but it fits very well.

I had a great deal of fun with The Female Quixote and I imagine other people would also.

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