Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Works of Charlotte Lennox - Part 2: The Female Quixote

"Alphonsine" did not do. We were disgusted in twenty pages, as, independent of a bad translation, it has indelicacies which disgrace a pen hitherto so pure; and we changed it for the "Female Quixotte," which now makes our evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it. Mrs. F. A., to whom it is new, enjoys it as one could wish; the other Mary, I believe, has little pleasure from that or any other book. - Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, 1807

The best known and most celebrated of Lennox's works, The Female Quixote: or, The Adventures of Arabella is the story of the daughter of a reclusive Marquis. In all but one aspect she is feminine perfection personified, more beautiful and brilliant than all around her:
Nature had indeed given her a most charming Face, a Shape easy and delicate, a sweet and insinuating  Voice, and an Air so full of Dignity and Grace, as drew the Admiration of all that saw her. These native Charms were improved with all the Heightenings of Art; her Dress was perfectly magnificent; the best Masters of Music and Dancing were sent for from London to attend her. She soon became a perfect Mistress of the French and Italian Languages, under the Care of her Father; and it is not to be doubted, but she would have made a great Proficiency in all useful Knowlege, had not her whole Time been taken up by another Study. 
Arabella's comic failing is that she believes the romantic novels she adores are based on reality (yes, we'll get to Northanger soon). Never having entered the world, we can forgive her this foible, but perhaps not the father who never corrected the unfortunate misconception. That man's death and the arrival of a cousin, Mr. Glanville, occasion the beginning of Arabella's emergence into society. Though he sees and laments how ridiculous she is, Mr. Glanville falls in love with Arabella's beauty and nobility. First he must earn her regard through those acts of valiantly, loyalty, and perseverance which Arabella deems necessary for courtship, then he must take her into the world to try and excuse, hide, and rectify her absurdities as best he can. It is a long slough through the course of which the hero undergoes such degradation as to make it difficult to maintain respect for the man.

The text is dominated by long speeches by Arabella recounting the feats of the heroes and heroines of old whose behavior she reveres and strives to emulate. Here is one in which she chides Glanville, who is often subjected to her lectures:
But Repentance ought to precede Reformation, replied Arabella; otherwise, there is great room to suspect it is only feigned: And a sincere Repentance shews itself in such visible Marks, that one can hardly be deceived in that which is genuine. I have read of many indiscreet Lovers, who not succeeding in their Addresses, have pretended to repent, and acted as you do; that is, without giving any Signs of Contrition for the Fault they had committed, have eat and slept well, never lost their Colour, or grew one bit thinner, by their Sorrow; but contented themselves with saying they repented; and, without changing their Disposition to renew their Fault, only concealed their Intention, for fear of losing any favourable Opportunity of committing it again: But true Repentance, as I was saying, not only produces Reformation, but the Person who is possessed of it voluntarily punishes himself for the Faults he has been guilty of. Thus Mazares, deeply  repenting of the Crime his Passion for the divine Mandana had forced him to commit; as a Punishment,  obliged himself to follow the Fortune of his glorious Rival; obey all his Commands; and, fighting under his Banners, assist him to gain the Possession of his adored Mistress. Such a glorious Instance of Self-denial was, indeed, a sufficient Proof of his Repentance; and infinitely more convincing than the Silence he imposed upon himself with respect to his Passion.  
Oroondates, to punish himself for his Presumption, in daring to tell the admirable Statira, that he loved her, resolved to die, to expiate his Crime; and, doubtless, would have done so, if his fair Mistress, at the Intreaty of her Brother, had not commanded him to live. 
This goes on for hundreds and hundreds of pages. A man pays Arabella a compliment and she, thinking he has fallen helplessly in love with her,  banns him forever from her presence. Witnessing an altercation between a man and his female companion, Arabella assumes she is a foreign princess held captive against her will. Thinking a passing carriage might be an abductor, she throws herself into an icy river and nearly drowns. And so on. And so on. And yet so on. O.K. the river scene was pretty funny, but struggle as I might I cannot find what joy Austen found in this text. Inspiration ... that's a different story. Clearly the plot of Northanger Abbey incorporates themes from The Female Quixote. Both feature women who are led astray by the influence of reading: Arabella by Renaissance romance and Catherine Morland by Gothic novels. Though Lennox's characters are caricatures compared to Austen's highly developed creations, comparisons between them are easy to draw: both heroines led by their reading to commit an indiscretion, both heroes are sarcastic and have sisters who are pivotal to the plot, everybody goes to Bath, and both stories feature treacherous friends. Yet the difference are far more obvious than the similarities. Catherine Morland doesn't scoff at reality like, even if her imagination does run away with her. It is when she sees evidence of Mr. Thorpe's unpleasantness and Isabella's perfidy that she abandons them, and not before such proofs of unworthiness. When caught in her great indiscretion - sneaking into the late Mrs. Tilney's room - Catherine reforms her ways instead of stubbornly persisting in folly. She is in this the antithesis of Arabella in her behavior, as she is in her simple origins and lack of achievement. The gentlemen, too, are opposites. One cannot imagine Mr. Tilney degrading himself as Mr. Glanville does. If the influence of Lennox is to be felt on Northanger it must be interpreted as a critique, not on homage, for Lennox is guilty of precisely what Austen derides in her famous defense of the novel in chapter five: "I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding." 

I was sorry to find The Female Quixote almost painful to read. It began well enough, and much as I expected, but as Arabella's foolishness was exposed and mocked over and over and over it ceased to be humorous or absurd and just became tedious. The farther I read, the more I wondered what compelled Lennox to write it. Obviously, the book is a parody of Don Quixote, but why create a woman as foolish as Arabella and then use her as a vehicle to criticize your own work? Lennox's other books all depict realities in which Arabella's supposed nonsense would fit right in, so who is she censuring but herself, just as Austen accuses? The great irony, as noted in Part One, is that many of the outlandish adventures Lennox's heroines endure are based on the author's real life experiences! The multitude of questions this text provokes makes it ideal for academic dissection, but it can't do much for the casual reader. Maybe if you really love Don Quixote, and I admit to knowing quite a few people who do, but the unsuspecting Janeite might want to think twice before following this particular recommendation from our beloved authoress. Maybe I'll save a few lucky souls from enduring the torture of reading this tomb (there are NINE volumes). Lennox's other works are better reads and more worth the effort.

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