Returning to the Female Quixote

I just taught the Female Quixote again, after our Richardsonian marathon, and I’ve learned just how teachable a novel it is, especially in the context of my Haywood to Austen domestic novel course. I had initially taught her very differently, as a kind of weak female echo of both Richardson and Fielding, and found myself wondering, along with the rest of the class, why I’d assigned her.

It was when I started thinking more specifically about the sub-genres constituting the novel, and seeing her as an important literary model for Austen, that the FQ became more interesting to me. When read alongside Burney, Radcliffe, Wollstonecraft, and a big chunk of Austen, including the juvenilia, the novel made much better sense to me as a part of literary history. And, really, there is a lightness to the comedy in her writing that I sometimes wish I could find in Burney or Smollett.

In the course of rereading and prepping the novel, though, I noticed two things I hadn’t really reflected on before.

The first was just how displaced this Gibraltar-born daughter of a Scots army officer had been in her earliest years: while still a child, she had followed her father to Fort New York, and ended up in London unprovided for, landing in a disagreeable marriage to another Scot, one Alexander Lennox. But the novels that reflected her American experience do not seem to have garnered anywhere near the attention of the FQ. All the exoticism of this novel resides in the fanciful stories that fill poor Arabella’s head.

The second thing I noted was how different this book’s take on sensibility was from Burney’s heroines, largely because Lennox satirizes and idealizes the sentimental female at the same time. The effect actually resembles Sterne’s toying with the sentimental in the Sentimental Journey, since we are left unsure how to credit the suffering that undoubtedly does take place in both books.

Initially, Lennox plays Arabella’s mourning purely for laughs, as when she imitates her Romance heroines’ all-too-eloquent speeches, which makes her matter-of-fact Uncle Charles think she is in a “delirium.”

But then Charles and his son, Glanville, go in to see her lying negligently on the bed, and this is what they find:

Her deep Mourning, and the black Gawse, which covered Part of her fair Face, was so advantageous to her Shape and Complexion, that Sir Charles, who had not seen her since she grew up, was struck with an extreme Surprize at her Beauty, while his Son was gazing on her so passionately, that he never thought of introducing his Father to her, who contemplated her with as much Admiration as his Son, though with less Passion (60).

What struck me this time round was how Clarissa-like this scene was, though in ways that Richardson never would have acknowledged: the heroine’s physical presence was enough to stupefy every man who gazes upon her, but the sexuality of the two men’s fascination with the sentimental, suffering heroine is clearly acknowledged by the omniscient narrator. What permits Lennox to do this is the novel’s Quixotic premise, in which the heroine never really understands what those around her are reacting to.

So can others think of similarly comic yet eroticized sensibility in other writings of the Long Eighteenth? What are your favorites?

Best,

DM

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