18 February 2012

The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox

I had been looking forward to reading this for quite awhile, and all the more so after reading (and very much enjoying) Lennox's Henrietta. But this book kind of let me down. It's not terrible, it's just not at all the rollicking, reflective read I was hoping for. The protagonist, Arabella, gets pretty annoying after awhile, and the overall narrative comes across as somewhat prissy and humorless. It's actually kind of a disturbing read, in a way - the story of this genuinely delusional woman.

One problem with the novel is that it's just way too long. The first three quarters are repetitive and tiresome - the same effects could have been accomplished in 1/3 of the pages. Which would have helped, because by the end she's rushing through to finish - I honestly thought the e-book version I had must be incomplete, because it seemed inconceivable to me that it would end so abruptly.

More importantly though, the tone of the novel is all wrong. It can't quite find the balance (that Don Quixote so masterfully achieves) between humor and repulsion - perhaps because the absurdity is not quite played up enough, or maybe because Arabella is too fully realized as a character for us to be fully comfortable with her making such an utter ass of herself. Lennox tries to compensate for this by having strangers be so overwhelmed by Arabella's natural beauty and grace that they can ignore the fact that she seems to be insane, but it's a pretty thin ploy. Most women are immune to this charm - in fact, the catty bitches generally resent her charm and thus are all the more eager to villify her, which makes us like them less, yes, but also makes for a lot of really unpleasant moments. While we initially feel frustrated with Glanville's unwillingness to even read the romances Arabella loves so much, as the novel progresses, we pity him for his genuine dilemma in being in love with a maniac.

Ultimately, of course, Arabella is cured of her folly. What I found odd was that it was not by the friendly Countess who had herself loved romances and thus was able to reach Arabella on her own level - the novel seems to offer this solution, only to hastily retract it as the Countess is randomly called away on business, never to return. Instead, it takes a stern talking to from a doctor, who basically just reasons with her. Why didn't anyone try that before, you might wonder. There is something kind of unpleasant about it though. I mean, it feels like abasement. This is perhaps not entirely unfair, given that in her version of the romance world, Arabella is an absolute tyrant, but still, it's not the best note to end on - especially when she basically apologizes to Glanville and gives herself to him, if he'll have her. I mean sure, the novel has a final final end by telling us that they were super in love, but the stark power differential is a bit unappealing.


Patrick Murtha said...

Try Tabitha Tenney's Female Quixotism, if you haven't yet. A lot of fun as I recall.

culture_vulture said...

Thanks, I will!

Patrick Murtha said...

I read Tenney's 1801 novel in an "Early American Literature" class at Yale in the late Seventies and found it thoroughly enjoyable. It was a hit with contemporary audiences, went through multiple editions, and stayed in print deep into the 19th century. When I took my class, the instructor had to provide the novel as a photocopy packet, but it was later reprinted in a paperback edition in Oxford's "Early American Women Writers" in 1992.