The Female Quixote (1752)

JAS: Until I read The Female Quixote, I let Don Quixote be a male thing, a male lesson of sorting reality from fantasy that had, somehow, to do with living as a knight when one was only a commoner.  Charlotte Lennox, in the 18th century, grabbed the lance for herself and asked a critical question as relevant now in the 21st century as then, “What does a girl learn from stories about becoming a woman?”  I start our conversation as a book review with teeth, one with a poignant truth. The Female Quixote is not about what fiction means to teach but what a girl is learning.        

Don Quixote has always been a favorite of mine.  Whether as an encouragement to honor the imagination or a way to understand perceptions of irrationality, the tale of Don Quixote tilting at windmills as true enemies of his peace of mind intrigued me from an early age.  As a girl child, I’d already discovered that my imagination was one of my greatest assets.  If I’d depended on the realities of opportunities available to me, born female, I’d have wandered a labyrinth of paths that led nowhere for years to come.  Instead I read books and imagined myself into adventures that I then made real. And I discovered, a little like Don Quixote, that a windmill was just a windmill and I could escape many situations that seemed like dead-ends.  No one held the key to the closed door after all.  I went on a lot of forbidden adventures, with and without other intrepid travelers.

Recently, when I stumbled across the title of a book, The Female Quixote, I felt compelled to look inside.  Much to my surprise, it was written by a woman mid-eighteenth century!  Charlotte Lennox was a dreamer and traveler who wrote down her adventures with a vigorous imagination drawn from books. In her novel, The Female Quixote, she gives us Arabella, a woman definitely ahead of her time. She’s a heroine who breaks down the barrier between a woman’s insistence on her own reality and her escapades of thought as seen from the eyes of friends, lovers, and relatives.  If you’ve ever been in doubt about the verite of a woman’s experience, you’ll join others to find a richness of fantasy played out as solid truth by Arabella that cannot be denied albeit the woman herself is never to be pinned down. 

Very Quixote, endlessly interesting, Lennox’s novel is an early revelation of how a girl’s exclusion from society has a paradoxical effect. Instead of isolating and containing her, it sends her into her own reality, one that unwittingly destines her to propel herself and society itself forward.  A woman’s belief in a social reality of respect and high regard drawn from stories she’s read defies her status quo enemies of change. She confronts outside expectations with a power bestowed by the literary prowess of the written imagination, effectively challenging societal authority with wit and persuasion. Arabella’s fantasy world is a goldmine of invention that requires others to live lightly in the delicate air of relationship rather than the restrictive realms of convention

The worst threat to Arabella comes when she’s informed by her Uncle that she will lose most of her father’s inheritance if she does not marry according to his Will.  She immediately demands an extended mourning period – years even if she chooses – to avoid becoming a wifely servant. She calls upon examples from the best of books to verify her choice to be a dutiful daughter.  In other cases when Lennox’s heroine, Arabella, is faced with external events that threaten her independence and self-respect, she calls upon her vast knowledge of chivalrous literature and imposes an idealistic overlay like a song added to a scene in a film to protect her.

But how does Arabella control events with fantasy and get away with it?  With respect for women sorely lacking in her day, how does Arabella get others to go along with a reality taken from the tales she’s read?  Luckily or perhaps purposely endowed by Lennox, even a betrothed Arabella is a woman with money and position that others cannot get their hands on while she holds out her consent to marriage.  So she takes her time and resists her father’s Will as she confounds her Uncle and suitors with her interpretation of events. In essence, she is insisting on a woman’s choice and independence in the face of authority and refusing the rigid social order of her day.  Quite a feat. 

Arabella’s copious concoctions as she tilts at one windmill after another compel the reader forward just like they do in the original Don Quixote.  It’s like reading a good mystery novel. I wanted to know how a woman’s sleight of hand opposition to a life sentence as a wife was going to turn out – would her imagination lead her to a good end with a man who loved her for her essence or would she, like her predecessor, Don Quixote, be forever chasing another windmill of enemies while I, mesmerized, played Sancho  Panza to her elusive pursuit of respect? 

In actuality, at the end of the book, she marries. But in my mind, another story has begun.  What happens after Happily Ever After is a story still being written. Arabella certainly is not rescued like a princess in a fairy tale. She was already in a modern romance where the woman is just as likely to rescue the man as the man, the woman.  Her destined husband, Cousin Granville, has already shown himself to be a man interested in the Signs of a woman most men could not read.  It’s a good chance he’ll keep on learning after marriage to Arabella.

KN: Rather than interact piecemeal with your reflection on The Female Quixote, I’d like to wax freely from my own imagination.  I feel like we’re watching one another taking a grand sweep at a windmill, jousting to one another’s ideas about how we each learned from the books we read as girls what it meant to be a woman.     

Lady Quixote’s Message

Charlotte Lennox’s Arabella reminds me of something I’ve thought about often. What kind of person would I become if I had been born on a deserted island without any parental influence to guide. Instincts would propel me to search for food when I felt hungry.  Instincts would compel me to find warmth when I was cold. Trial and error and experience would be my guideposts. But anything beyond basic survival skills would have to be born from my fresh imagination. Who would I become? What would I be drawn to? How would my world unfurl if I had no prior example to guide me other than my own mind and its infinite potential? What would I organically seek out as my own life experience?

Arabella is not born on a desert island. But she is raised on an island of her own—a world of richness and privilege afforded by a wealthy father. In this space, without maternal guidance and instruction, she’s left to flounder on her own when it comes to the land of romance and interpersonal relations. So, she turns to books and is drawn into the world of Harlequin-type romance where bodices are ripped and men make women swoon. This becomes her only education in the department of love and she fully jumps in, head first, her imagination blooming so much that she begins to adopt the circumstances and scenes as her own. With no one to tell her no, or to tell her what is more appropriate behavior for an eighteenth-century woman, she crafts her own legendary life, mirroring the situations she’s read in her romances. As much as my modern mind thinks chivalrous romances are silly, I loved the idea that a woman constrained by the time, social climate, and conservative mores toward the female sex, could find such a source of liberation in books. Our first role models, oftentimes parents, tend to shape us, yet Arabella’s first role models are books, and nobody is around to tell her that her fictions are really just that … so that her fictions actually become her facts. And what fun, flirty, sensual facts they are. She manages to find her own source of freedom in this without anyone to tell her otherwise.

That is, of course, until her father dies and she is willed to marry a man in order to keep her inheritance, forcing her to not only have to face the realities of her days without her book stories to rescue her, but also to come down to earth and navigate a traditional relationship absent of the flourish and whimsy and breathlessness of a romance writer’s pen. But this is where the story gets interesting to me. Because Arabella has already had the luxury of living her fantasy life for so long, she brings the fantasy parts of her into her marriage. What interests me is what’s next. What does a man do with a woman like this? Who has stepped out of convention for so long that she brings a whole unique new perspective to relationship. Theirs is a relationship that can benefit from such flights of fancy. Granville is not receiving anything he is used to. What marvelous crafting can now be done between the two of them! He is, in effect, receiving quite a gift! Let the fun begin.

When a woman is left to forge her way in life swept upon the breeze of self-compelled imagination, this is where the richness resides. When she is able to show a heart that is pure and true to another human being, it can be accepted or rejected, but at least it is her own. There is such power in this and it carries a real message to the women of today. Be yourself. Find yourself. Let your own mind guide you to those places of interest, longing, and desire, that live inherently within you. As Anais Nin famously said, “Live FromThe Dream Outward” and not the other way around.

3 thoughts on “The Female Quixote (1752)”

  1. Here are two quotes that took hold of me:
    “Arabella’s fantasy world is a goldmine of invention that requires others to live lightly in the delicate air of relationship rather than the restrictive realms of convention.” JAS

    “Granville is not receiving anything he is used to. What marvelous crafting can now be done between the two of them! He is, in effect, receiving quite a gift! Let the fun begin.” KN

    As a woman in a marriage of many years that feels like many marriages, many renewals, I’m curious about the interplay between a woman’s independent spirit and engagement with a life partner. How the imagination is an enlivening and challenging force in relationship. Enlivening because we are constantly reimagining ourselves, and we are often unknown even to ourselves; and challenging for the very same reason. The difficult unknown opens the door to fears that can trip us up, though they also present a chance to reflect upon our vulnerabilities and navigate through them.
    So I’m eager to read The Female Quixote and see how Arabella improvises her way through difficulties and pleasures. How wonderful that you chose this book!

    1. Thanks Regina, it was truly interesting to see the way women have been trying to break out of sexual constraints for ages!

  2. Here are two quotes from above, that took hold of me:
    “Arabella’s fantasy world is a goldmine of invention that requires others to live lightly in the delicate air of relationship rather than the restrictive realms of convention.” JAS

    “Granville is not receiving anything he is used to. What marvelous crafting can now be done between the two of them! He is, in effect, receiving quite a gift! Let the fun begin.” KN

    As a woman in a marriage of many years that feels like many marriages, many renewals,
    I’m curious about the ways Arabella navigates her relationships with others and with the imagination. For while the playful imagination can be enlivening in a relationship as we travel the unknown (for aren’t we often unknown to ourselves as well as others?), it can also pose challenges to our fears and vulnerabilities. Bravo to the two of you for choosing this book, and from another century too! Yet it sounds as if her adventures may be remarkably current. . .

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