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.

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