Tuesday, August 28, 2012

506. The Female Quixote – Charlotte Lennox

History: Published in 1752, imitating and parodying the ideas of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, and two years after she wrote her first novel, The Life of Harriot Stuart, it was her best known and most celebrated work. It was approved by both Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson, applauded by Samuel Johnson, and used as a model by Jane Austen for her famous work, Northanger Abbey. It is often seen as an expression of identity in a world governed by the rules of men. It has been called a burlesque, "satirical harlequinade", and the reality of the power of females. While some dismissed Arabella as a coquette who simply used romance as a tool, Scott Paul Gordon said that she "exercises immense power without any consciousness of doing so". 
Plot: Arabella, the heroine of the novel, was brought up by her widowed father in a remote English castle, where she reads many French romance novels, and imagining them to be historically accurate, expects her life to be equally adventurous and romantic. When her father dies, he declared that she would lose part of her estate if she did not marry her cousin Glanville. After imagining wild fantasies for herself in the country, she visits Bath and London. Glanville is concerned at her mistaken ideas, but continues to love her, while Sir George Bellmour, his friend, attempts to court her in the same chivalric language and high-flown style as in the novels. When she throws herself into Thames in an attempt to flee from horsemen whom she mistakes to be "ravishers" in an imitation of Clélie, she becomes weak and ill. This action might have been inspired by the French satire The Mock-Clielia, in which the heroine "rode at full speed towards the great Canal which she took for theTyber, and whereinto she threw her self, that she might swim over in imitation of Clelia whom she believed her self to be. A clergyman reasons with her and makes her come to an understanding of the clash of mundane reality and literary illusion, at which she finally accepts Glanville's hand and marries him. In the novel, Arabella often speaks lengthily in defense and about the novels and their heroines.
Review: The romance was the major form of literature from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Romances were epic tales full of heroism, adventure and chivalry, sometimes involving gods or legendary figures. After the Renaissance came a slow transition to shorter, less epic and less fantastic forms of literature to what we now appreciate as the "novel". By the mid-1700s, when Charlotte Lennox wrote The Female Quixote, romances were considered by many as dangerous. With a comparatively large literate population and books becoming easier to mass produce, romances lead credulous readers to think that the dream worlds of heroism and fantasy were true. Or so some thought.
The Female Quixote is the story of Arabella who has lived in seclusion all her life. With only her recluse father and a mountain of old romances as companions, Arabella grows up thinking that the world of her books is the world that she lives in. All is fine and good in her quiet abode until her uncle and cousins arrive and she is thrown into society. You can hardly imagine the trouble she gets into. Any man riding a horse is a probable ravisher. Any gardener with a literate accent is a man in disguise intending to carry her away. A small argument between two young men will no doubt turn into a bloody duel over the affections of a lady.
The story is bit sluggish at times, but always full of strange and funny episodes. Particularly funny is the history of Sir George, one of Arabella's many admirers. He recounts his life story (or what he wants Arabella to believe it is), complete with a dethroned Prince, bloody duels, imprisonment and multiple damsels in distress.
Opening Line: The Marquis of ------ for a long Series of Years, was the first and most distinguished Favourite at Court: He held the most honourable Employments under the Crown, disposed of all Places of Profit as he pleased, presided at the Council, and in a manner governed the whole Kingdom.”
Closing Line: “We chuse, Reader, to express this Circumstance, though the same, in different Words, as well to avoid Repetition, as to intimate that the first mentioned Pair were indeed only married in the common Acceptation of the Word; that is, they were privileged to join Fortunes, Equipages, Titles, and Expence; while Mr. Glanville and Arabella were united, as well in these, as in every Virtue and laudable Affection of the Mind.”
Quotes: “Alas! unfortunate Maid that I am! cried she, weeping excessively, questionless I am betrayed by her on whose Fidelity I relied, and who was acquainted with my most secret Thoughts: She is now with my Ravisher, directing his Pursuit, and I have no Means of escaping from his Hands! Cruel and ungrateful Wench, thy unparalleled Treachery grieves me no less than all my other Misfortunes: But why do I say, Her Treachery is unparalleled? Did not the wicked Arianta betray her Mistress into the Power of her insolent Lover? Ah! Arabella, thou art not single in thy Misery, since the divine Mandana was, like thyself, the Dupe of a mercenary Servant.”
Rating: Long and tedious.

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