Charlotte Lennox’s ‘The Female Quixote’

On the 4th of January 1804, the English author and poet Charlotte Lennox, née Ramsay, died in London. The fact that she was buried in an unmarked grave at Broad Court Cemetery is, in some metaphoric way, meaningful. In her writing, and especially in The Female Quixote (1752) (or The Adventures of Arabella) – a novel imitating and parodying the ideas of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605), she tried to speak up on behalf of suppressed female desire, and, to a certain extent, to inspire women to have the need for it. Yet, in a world dominated by men, her attempt turned out to be futile, an expression of which can be her empty gravestone. 

41jN5+tMlyLArabella, the heroine of the novel, who lives in a remote English castle isolated from the fashionable world, develops an overwhelming fondness for French romance novels. She reads them passionately and imagines her life to be as adventurous and romantic as that of their heroines.  But soon, reality strikes hard. Upon her father’s death, she learns that in order to save her estate she would have to marry her cousin, Glanville, and give in to restrictions of married life. She does not want to immediately abandon her dreams, which frustrates and maddens her well-meaning suitor. With her head full of wild fantasies, she visits Bath and London, where she meets Sir George Bellmour, Glanville’s friend, who attempts to court her in the same chivalrous language and high-flown style as she had found in romances. Then, probably inspired by one of the French satires, she throws herself into the Thames in an attempt to flee from horsemen whom she mistakes to be “ravishers”, and becomes weak and ill. She is finally ‘brought to reason’ by a doctor who explains to her the difference between mundane reality and literary illusion, and in effect, as a result of this, she finally agrees to marry Glanville.

The Female Quixote, may at first glance seem like a trivial satire. But it actually conveys a rather complex message.  “It has been commonplace to consider Charlotte Lennox’s novel as primarily an employment of female power in which, as Patricia Mayer Spacks observes, “a young woman with no opportunities for action and with little companionship imagines, on the basis of her reading of romance a world in which she can claim enormous significance.” Spacks reads the character of Arabella… as an active signifier of a female desire for things historically reserved exclusively for men: fame, power and influence, heroic status. It is this desire, in fact, that must be tamed if Arabella is to take her allotted place in a male-centred society that defines woman not as a signifier of desire but as the object of male desire – as the empty space to be filled up by male desire. Arabella must, in other words, learn to trade romance for reality, her plot of female ambition for a plot of feminine submission.” (Thomas H. Schmid, “My Authority”: Hyper-Mimesis and the Discourse of Hysteria in The Female Quixote’, Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 51, No. 1, 1997).

5139rtJZAZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Thus, the book can be considered as a critical commentary on the gender relations at the time and  it does represent a coherent feminist stance. By abandoning herself to the world of fantasy, Arabella became a ‘creator’ of a certain reality – her own reality. And she placed herself at its very centre, which, of course, in the eighteenth century was still unimaginable to do for a woman. Ronald Paulson remarked that though at first the book seems to focus “on the heroine’s mind”, it turns into an “intense psychological scrutiny of Arabella … replaced by a rather clumsy attempt at the rapid satiric survey of society”. (Ronald Paulson, Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth Century England).

What is more, Lennox’s reference to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and especially the way both stories end, seems to explicitly expose her criticism on gender inequality in the eighteenth century and its impact on the women of the time. As noticed by Deborah Ross:  “When Don Quixote loses his delusion, the spell is broken, he dies, the book ends, the reader is sad. When Arabella loses hers, she is cured and can get married and live happily ever after.” (Deborah Ross, ‘Mirror, Mirror: The Didactic Dilemma of The Female Quixote’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 27, No. 3, Restoration and Eighteenth Century, Summer, 1987). The “happily ever after” is then compared by Lennox to death, meaning in this case, a definite social exclusion of married women in eighteenth-century England. Arabella, just like Don Quixote, is led by her illusions into a duel which from the start she is bound to lose – but unlike her male counterpart, she does not fight against windmills but fossilised social stereotypes.