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The Female Quixote

December 31, 2020

I’ve read Charlotte Lennox’s “The Female Quixote” (Kwicksoht), and I struggled through much of the first half, but the effort was well worth it.  I flew through the last 100 pages.

Lennox’s novel was inspired by Cervantes and later inspired Austen, two authors I’ve recently discovered, so I really wanted to read this.

What grew tiresome was the repetition of the formula:  a heroine such as Arabella perceives herself to be, must banish any man presumptuous enough to declare romantic feelings for her; he must prove his love by many years of heroic action and sacrifice on her behalf.  In such romances as Arabella has been reading all her young life, the heroine is constantly abducted by villainous men, and must be frequently saved by the virtuous hero.  Arabella sees every man who comes into her orbit in “The Female Quixote” as presumptuously in love with her and on the point of abducting her, even if he’s perfectly indifferent to her.  Like our original DQ seeing giants in windmills and villains in ordinary people, Arabella envisions dangerous men riding to abduct her, in every new acquaintance.  And when challenged, she quotes at length from the romances she takes to be true histories, and these lengthy quotations are the most tiresome aspect of the book.

But there’s far more to it than that, and in fact, writing it out like this I see something I didn’t understand before.  Arabella banishes every man who speaks more than ordinary conversation to her, because she expects 99% of men to be abductors.  I read in an essay only yesterday, after finishing the book, that in these French romances, abduction of the heroine is more or less constant; the hero in Artamenes has to save the heroine eight times.

So yes, Arabella sees windmills as monstrous giants, so to speak.  But she’s never seen many windmills to begin with.  She’s completely closeted in her castle, living only with her father.  So she’s a little like Emma Woodhouse, who has never traveled beyond her local county, but it’s a more extreme case, because Arabella has never read anything beyond French romances.  Those were the only books left to her by her mother; and her father has clearly taken no interest in her education. 

Nor is there anyone like Mr. Knightley around her to tell her the truth.

With Don Quixote, there is some ambiguity about whether he is acting.  Arabella is merely young, and afraid.

As many critics have pointed out, the original “Don Quixote” is both comedic and tragic, while Lennox’s novel is more solidly in a comedic vein.  Arabella is even “cured” at the end, and married happily.  She is never, of course, beaten to a pulp in the novel, as our knight and squire were.  Obviously as a woman that’s not going to happen; and of course the whole comedy depends on her thinking falsely that she’s in danger.  A real abuse of her would change the story entirely.

Arabella is not even challenged on her notions as forcefully as our old knight was.  Arabella has no squire, or anyone else, who will challenge her like that. Everyone except Charlotte Glanville is terrified of her; or else besotted with her.  Her beauty allows her to get away with anything, and to live unchallenged in her immature notions (an underdeveloped theme in this book), unlike poor DQ.

I was just as much exasperated by her as I was with DQ.  I found myself longing for someone, anyone, to at least get mad at her, the way Mr. Knightley does with Emma.  But Mr. Glanville is far more patient and docile, and he leaves her in her fantasy world so often that it’s frustrating.  Sancho Panza periodically losing his temper with his master and trying to talk reason with the old knight was one of the funniest and best things about “DQ.”

(Spoilers ahead.)

Someone does finally cure Arabella, and it’s a man (a problem which I’ll get to below), but it’s the gentlest voice of reason and logic.  There’s no anger in the man’s discourse.  It’s an ideal form of rational persuasion. 

As an example of ideal rationality, by itself, it’s lovely to read.  And it means something to me personally, because I’ve spent much of my life making logical arguments, in defense of true history, as this man is doing with Arabella.

But while my logic has always been respected, it’s still extremely rare to get anyone to change their minds about something that they want to believe; something that they’ve longed believed.  In a way, the concession this man gets from Arabella at the end – admitting that her most beloved books are fiction, and that what she’s learned from them needs to be questioned thoroughly – is romantic fantasy.  It’s the fantasy, or the dream, that logic always wins out in the end – and in this case it wins out over Arabella’s heart very quickly, which is a problem, as many critics have pointed out.

What bothered me most about Arabella’s cure is not that it’s a contest of logic vs. emotion.  Arabella is actually a principled individual.  She’s tossed about by her emotions, certainly, but her emotions are what they are because of what she has learned and believes to be true.  When she tells the good doctor that she is prepared, upon learning new information or correction, to throw away her books, you get the sense that she can do so because she truly wants to live by the truest principles she can find (page 377). 

Prove, therefore, that the books which I have hitherto read as copies of life, and models of conduct, are empty fictions, and from this hour I deliver them to moths and mould; and from this time consider their authors as wretches who cheated me of those hours I ought to have dedicated to application and improvement, and betrayed me to a waste of those years in which I might have laid up knowledge for my future life.

Mr. Glanville had seen as much early on, after first being “banished” by Arabella.  He is tempted to feel ill-used by her, but (p. 45):

He found her usage of him was grounded upon examples she thought it her duty to follow; and, strange as her notions of life appeared, yet they were supported with so much wit and delicacy, that he could not help admiring her, while he foresaw the oddity of her humour would throw innumerable difficulties in his way, before he should be able to obtain her.

A little later, Mr. Glanville and Arabella engage in a lively logical argument, one of the best of the early chapters.  So the final debate with the logical doctor is not entirely new to the book, nor completely outside of what Arabella would want.

But the conversion does happen too fast.  Lennox was persuaded by Samuel Richardson to end the novel in two volumes, which explains why the conclusion is hasty.

And though I mostly enjoyed the doctor’s arguments in themselves, what bothered me most was his almost-complete disavowal of fiction.  Cervantes satirized the tales of chivalry that Don Quixote read, but it was a loving satire, in which he partly copied the best aspects of those tales.  The same is true of Jane Austen and the Gothic romances that Catherine Morland is reading in “Northanger Abbey.”

Arabella, I think, expresses the kind of satire that Cervantes, Lennox and Austen all achieve, when she talks about “raillery”, or what we would call good-natured teasing (page 269):

I would have raillery raise the fancy, and quicken the imagination: the fire of its wit should only enable us to trace its original, and shine as the stars do, but not burn. Yet, after all, I cannot greatly approve of raillery, or cease to think it dangerous; and, to pursue my comparisons, said she, with an enchanting smile, persons who possess the true talent of raillery are like comets; they are seldom seen, and are at once admired and feared.

That’s what I think these authors all did: with wit, they allow us to “trace the original” literature that they, without burning, fondly satirize. 

Some critics theorize that Lennox’s original intent was to have Arabella cured gradually by the Countess.  That unnamed woman, you feel as soon as she starts talking, must be a stand-in for Lennox herself.  She defends and sympathizes with Arabella, because in her youth she was deeply read in the romances.

Yet the Countess is pulled out of the story suddenly and artificially (to take care of a sick parent whom we never meet).  This was a lost opportunity, because a sustained relationship between the Countless and Arabella could have shown what it looks like to extricate someone from a false belief system.  This would have been more useful than the good doctor’s logical speech, however attractive his arguments may be.

And Lennox is obviously well-versed in the French romances, so this depiction of Arabella gradually moving on from them to modern novels, I assume, would have drawn from her own experience.

The Countess has subtle ideas about the romances: she’s given them up as an adult, but she never says that they are entirely without merit.  Instead she brings up an idea about how history changes.  Referring to the heroines and heroes of the French romances, which were often set in antiquity (Page 328):

Custom, said the countess, smiling, changes the very nature of things; and what was honourable a thousand years ago, may probably be looked upon as infamous now—A lady in the heroic age you speak of, would not be thought to possess any great share of merit, if she had not been many times carried away by one or other of her insolent lovers: whereas a beauty in this could not pass through the hands of several different ravishers, without bringing an imputation on her chastity.

The same actions which made a man a hero in those times would constitute him a murderer in these—And the same steps which led him to a throne then, would infallibly conduct him to a scaffold now.

But custom, madam, said Arabella, cannot possibly change the nature of virtue or vice: and since virtue is the chief characteristic of a hero, a hero in the last age will be a hero in this—Though the natures of virtue or vice cannot be changed, replied the countess, yet they may be mistaken; and different principles, customs, and education, may probably change their names, if not their natures.

Sure, madam, said Arabella a little moved, you do not intend by this inference to prove Oroondates, Artaxerxes, Juba, Artaban, and the other heroes of antiquity bad men?

Judging them by the rules of Christianity, and our present notions of honour, justice, and humanity, they certainly are, replied the countess.

Think of what rich themes that would have added to this already very thoughtful novel.

In any case, as I’ve been saying, late in the novel it began to occur to me that Arabella was actually afraid, and not merely haughty.  She just began to seem like someone who is following her ideas and principles so rigorously, so like a creed, that the motivation could well be a deep-down dread of change and the unknown – and possibly also a fear of intimacy, though I have to think about that more.

Arabella may be afraid, but you can only go so far with that interpretation.  Yes she’s cut off from the world, but when she goes to London and Bath she doesn’t act timid; in fact she’s still confident, and in those cities she has some of her best moments. 

There’s another register in Arabella’s voice.  She actually sounds like a dominatrix at times (page 18):

and though his passion be ever so violent, his respect and submission to my commands will oblige him to silence

Then on pages 320-21, when Arabella is challenged for insisting that she has the authority to banish a man from England for the offense of expressing his love for her:

My authority, sir, said Arabella, strangely surprised, is founded upon the absolute power he has given me over him.

He denies that, madam, said Glanville, and says that he neither can give, nor you exercise, an absolute power over him; since you are both accountable to the king, whose subjects you are, and both restrained by the laws under whose sanction you live.

Arabella’s apparent confusion at these words giving Mr. Glanville hopes that he had fallen upon a proper method to cure her of some of her strange notions, he was going to pursue his arguments, when Arabella looking a little sternly upon him—

The empire of love, said she, like the empire of honour, is governed by laws of its own, which have no dependence upon, or relation to, any other….

Love requires a more unlimited obedience from its slaves, than any other monarch can expect from his subjects; an obedience which is circumscribed by no laws whatever, and dependent upon nothing but itself….

How mean and insignificant, pursued she, are the titles bestowed on other monarchs compared with those which dignity the sovereigns of hearts, such as Divine Arbitress of my Fate, Visible Divinity, Earthly Goddess, and many others equally sublime—

Women had little power in the ordinary world of that century, but could have absolute power – over lovers and men generally – in the romance-world that Arabella inhabits.

Even the romances, Arabella knows, signal marriage as the end of a heroine’s Adventures (p. 138):

for by the laws of romance, when a lady has once given her lover that permission, she may lawfully allow him to talk to her upon the subject of his passion, accept all his gallantries, and claim an absolute empire over all his actions; reserving to herself the right of fixing the time when she may own her affection: and when that important step is taken, and his constancy put to a few years more trial; when he has killed all his rivals, and rescued her from a thousand dangers; she at last condescends to reward him with her hand; and all her adventures are at an end for the future.

So there’s another modern twist to Arabella, who on the surface looks, especially to us, like someone trapped in a hopelessly outdated or old-fashioned notion of chivalric love.  And of course her notions of love are so strict that by modern standards they are hopelessly celibate, in outcome if not by intent.  But leaving all that aside, her insistence on having agency is, by itself, modern.  Nothing could be less progressive than an arranged marriage in which the woman has no say.

One of the first ironies to pop up in the book occurs after Arabella’s admirer and arranged marriage partner, Mr. Glanville, has agreed not to openly express feelings of love toward her, since Arabella has told him in heated fashion that such expressions are criminal and will force her to banish him.  So here, apparently, her “old-fashioned” sense of propriety has won.  But look at what the result is (page 46):

Arabella saw the change in her cousin’s behaviour with a great deal of satisfaction; for she did not doubt but his passion was as strong as ever; but that he forbore, through respect, from entertaining her with any expressions of it: therefore she now conversed with him with the greatest sweetness and complaisance; she would walk with him for several hours in the garden, leaning upon his arm; and charmed him to the last degree of admiration by the agreeable sallies of her wit, and her fine reasoning upon every subject he proposed.

It’s resulted in a modern form of love, not arranged, built on conversation and getting to know one another.

Arabella has many positive qualities but the one that sticks with me most is her impatience with trivial pursuits like gossip, or fashion for fashion’s sake.  She wants romance, we all know, but what that means for her is idealism; heroism; events of consequence.  She wants and expects to be inspired or instructed, not merely entertained. 

She’s romantic to the core, but she’s not superficial.

I once characterized Mr. Collins, of “Pride and Prejudice,” as somewhat similar to Don Quixote (without any of our knight’s positive qualities).  Arabella sometimes reminded me of Mr. Collins, particularly the way that he interpreted Lizzie’s statements – those refusing him – to be mere tricks of the game of love.  Mr. Collins can take even statements that flat-out contradict him, and find some interpretation of them according to his own lens.  Don Quixote did that expertly, and so does Arabella when Mr. Selvin tells her honestly that he had not intended to approach her with any declaration of love.  Arabella merely takes it to be the kind of ruse she finds in her romances (page 312):

Sir, it is easy to see through the artifice of your disclaiming any passion for me—Upon any other occasion, questionless, you would rather sacrifice your life, than consent to disavow these sentiments, which unhappily for your peace, you have entertained. At present the desire of continuing near me obliges you to lay this constraint upon yourself. However, you know Thrasimedes fell upon the same stratagem to no purpose. The rigid Udosia saw through the disguise, and would not dispense with herself from banishing him from Rome, as I do you from England——

The novel is filled with misunderstandings, far more than there are in “Don Quixote.”  See the narrator’s note on page 351: 

This enigmatical way of speaking upon such occasions, is of great use in the voluminous French romances; since the doubt and confusion it is the cause of, both to the accused and accuser, gives rise to a great number of succeeding mistakes, and consequently adventures.

Some other notes:

Next up is Madame Bovary, who by wide consent is the best claimant of being The Female Quixote.  I had intended to read it right after finishing “Don Quixote”, but I decided to take a short break just to finish “Pride and Prejudice,” and then I ended up reading all 6 Austen novels, plus this one.

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