Wednesday 26 June 2019

Review: Sophia by Charlotte Lennox

I expected my introduction to Charlotte Lennox to be through the copy of ‘The Female Quixote’ that has been sitting on my bookshelf the last few years but I received this for Christmas and started it instead. This book was written ten years after she was given a grand book launch part by The Club and was crowned with bays by Samuel Johnson. It was serialised in her ‘Lady’s Museum’ periodical and is the second serialised English novel and the first by a woman.

Harriot and Sophia are the daughter’s of a dead bankrupt who live with their mother on a small pension. Harriot is shallow, affected and vain whereas Sophia is well-read, kind and witty. The dilemmas start when the rich, handsome, yet attachment-wary Sir Charles is introduced to them - who will he like? Will he have the decency to make an honest woman of his choice?

From then we are given the usual run of misunderstandings, plots and schemes which serve to keep the virtuous Sophia away from her destined husband. It was one of those plots which could have been sorted out with ten minutes of clear and serious conversation, that such plots so frequently happen in fiction says a lot to the human powers of obfuscation.

If the plot is functional, so is the writing. While there is a balance of reported and direct speech, we are so often told that Sophia is witty but never get to see it for ourselves. Whenever her speech is reported, she is generally being kind, thoughtful or scolding. The people are largely described in terms of their actions and we are often then told what those actions signified and how the other characters read those signals.

I originally wrote that this would be a completely by-the-numbers 18th Century romantic tale if it wasn’t for the little bits of personality that shine out of the cracks in the rather bland format but in looking at these moments, most of them are really quite cruel.

 She clearly hates the character of Harriot and people of that kind, making frequent tart comments about how well she fools herself into thinking other people are falling in love with her. At one point the narrator notes that; “Vanity is extremely ingenious at securing gratifications for itself.” In the happy ending of the book, she gives a truly horrible conclusion to Harriot’s tale. The man ‘keeping’ her grows weary and kicks her out, she gets sick, loses her looks and is paired off with an army Captain who takes her to another country where they hate each other and she is kept under house arrest till she dies. I can’t say I liked the character, but she was punished unduly by the fiction gods.

Indeed, nearly all the women are held to higher account than the men in this book. Men, like Sir Charles, are allowed to be wavering in their commitment, whereas all of the women have to be absolutely good (and seen to be good) at all times. It’s like each woman has to represent the best of womanhood whereas each man is allowed to go his own way. Other female characters who fail to represent womanhood are Miss Gibbons, a ridiculous old spinster who confuses politeness and fussiness; and Mrs Howard, who claims great generosity but doesn’t give it. Not even Mrs Darnley, the matriarch of the kind family who look after Sophia after she had fled Sir Charles, passes the test. Despite her family being represented as saints, she is described as being too quick to laugh and too ‘country’ in her manners. 

The only spotless women are Sophia and her best friend Dolly. There are a few chapters where they gossip and joke with each other, and these are some of the best parts of the book. The speech may sound a little affected to modern ears bit the tone really is of a pair of good friends having private chats about boys. 

I enjoyed the book while reading it, there’s nothing that stops the flow of the narrative and the way the characters think and act do seem drawn from life and very realistic, but it was only in looking back that I can see how exacting the standard Charlotte Lennox sets for women compared with that for men. The book doesn’t go to the ludicrous extremes of an Elizabeth Haywood, nor does it have the intricate set pieces in ‘Evelina; and is left a little stranded. One day I shall crack open my ‘The Female Quixote’ and give Lennox another try, but not for a bit.

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