Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella (1752)

From the title, you can intuit to a fair degree of accuracy what this novel's going to be about. Arabella is a marquis' daughter who, through an overdose of romances, takes to heart ideas about how the world works that harken back to an imaginary chivalric ideal (specifically, she reads seventeenth-century French romances which she cites with great frequency--they may not be much read nowadays, but there's a rundown of some of them on this incomplete but extremely helpful page). As in the novel's namesake, it has no plot to speak of; Arabella bounces from one ludicrous situation to another until Lennox decides to disabuse her and wrap things up.

It may be useful to think about the novel by how it diverges from Don Quixote. Since Arabella is approaching this subject matter from a lady's perspective, it's a generally less active book than in its inspiration; knights may gallivant about engaging in acts of valor, but the heroines generally passively wait around and sometimes get abducted. So, there's that.

The other, probably more significant thing is that Arabella comes across as significantly crazier than Quixote. He may be delusional, but most of the time he's engaging in behavior that, if he were living in one of his books, would make sense and even be laudable. That's why people can have arguments about whether he's meant to be a noble warrior engaged in a doomed battle with his age. Arabella...not so much. Nobody is likely to make that argument of her. Her main thing is the idea that it's just the most horrific breach of honor and decorum for a man to express feelings for a woman, or even for them to be accidentally discovered (but this should happen anyway, so as to allow the romance to play out). She has to reject him and he has to wander the world in despair for god knows how long, committing all kinds of blood-soaked deeds in her name, and then, MAYBE POSSIBLY, she will deign to grant him her favor. This is completely nuts in any context, and I strongly suspect that, to the extent that things actually work like this in the romances in question, Arabella, in a cargo-cultish kind of way, has stripped away the context and just maintained the empty ritual, devoid of meaning. I won't lie: she frequently comes across as kind of unbearable. Lennox tries to square the circle a bit by insisting that, when she's not on this particular topic, she's incredibly intelligent and graceful and charming. This is necessary to justify the continued presence of Mr. Glanville, a frustrated would-be suitor, who is necessary for the plot, but it's difficult to imagine that she would really be able to compartmentalize like that.

As for the novel's gender politics...well, I would like to draw your attention back to the aforementioned website, Arabella's Romances, for a moment. Let me first say that I love the shit out of the fact that this site--created by a couple of doctoral candidates--exists. The world needs more such things. I really mean that. Nevertheless, I have to strongly take issue with the Conclusions section of the site, the gist of which is that the novel is a proto-feminist kind of thing because her use of romantic tropes allows her to claim agency and push back against a patriarchal world order:

Through reading these romances, Arabella develops a very strong notion of her own importance in the world and she seems to have high self-esteem. Because of this, Arabella often commands authority and controls the men around her, challenging social standards and accepted roles for women. Arabella constantly challenges these social conditions and "proper" notions of femininity by the fact that she creates and inhabits a world governed by the strictures of the romance novel and courtly love, instead of one governed by economic exchange of women through marriage. Though at times Lennox seems to mock Arabella, as Christine Roulston explains, “since Arabella is excluded from legitimate structures of power, fantasizing a female role with power becomes a critique of contemporary social conditions as much as of Arabella herself” (34).

"At times Lennox seems to mock Arabella?" I have plenty of experience of massaging weak claims to try to make them seem superficially plausible and hope no one notices, and I know it when I see someone else doing it. In fact, the book is almost nothing but Arabella-mockery--not mean-spirited mockery, but still. The only isolated exceptions come when she stumbles into making sense (by the standards of the time), and Lennox specifically notes these times as exceptions to her habitual behavior. Still, we could still see this as an implicit "critique of contemporary social structures"--if there were any criticism of same in the novel. But there just isn't. Arabella is portrayed as a completely ridiculous deviation from social norms, her return thereto one hundred percent desirable. As much as I hate to contradict a solid citizen like Christine Roulston, I just don't think there's any textual evidence to support any of this, even when it's gussied up with academic-sounding phrases like "legitimate structures of power." I mean, unless you want to say that Lennox's intentions are irrelevant; that it criticizes the patriarchy whether it was meant to or not--but in that case, you're left with a pretty darned vitiated argument: "women in romances had it better than real-world eighteenth-century women." I believe that merits a Duh with a capital D, and it's not clear why you even need Lennox's text, if that's all you want to say. It's not that the novel is notably anti-feminist, but trying to read it as feminist seems like a no-go to me, and I hope nobody's dissertation hinges on this notion. If one really wanted to pursue this, my advice would be to read her other novels and see if you can extrapolate anything from them that might apply here. But it doesn't look like that's what's being done.

Still, whatever you want to call it, I really enjoyed The Female Quixote. Obviously one's mileage will vary, and it undoubtedly benefited from the fact that I didn't have to read it in translation, but on the whole, I found it funnier than Don Quixote. Not that it's a non-stop laugh riot, but it definitely has its moments. The weakest part comes in the penultimate chapter, where a doctor talks Arabella out of her romantic notions. Previously, there had been a bit where she'd had a conversation with a sophisticated lady who had critiqued these ideas and put doubts into her head, and it seems like this could actually be resolved fairly artfully, but no such luck: she just gets talked out of them in a big ol' moralistic dialogue. "Being, in the author's opinion, the best chapter in this history," is the heading, and the author and I are going to have to agree to vehemently disagree.

Alas! Never mind, though; it's still a lot of fun. As far as eighteenth-century novels go, is it on the level of Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy? Not hardly, but it's well worth reading, and should probably be better-known. It also makes me want to check out Lennox's other novels. I dunno; there's something about the eighteenth-century British novel that really does it for me. There's one storm cloud, though, which is that I know damn well that if I really want a full picture of the milieu, I can't not read Samuel Richardson, and that thought kinda fills me with dread. Not because I can't deal with the politics; I know perfectly well that Pamela marries her attempted rapist! I can handle that! But I can't get over my strong premonition that the whole thing's just gonna be a dismal slog. Well, that's for the indefinite future. But for now, I'm quite pleased to have discovered Charlotte Lennox.


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