Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Female Quixote (Also, Manatees)

I'm sorry that I've been absent from blogging for a little while. There was some extra work, and there was also an unexpected trip which involved swimming with these creatures:

(Manatees are both cute and terrifying in person.)

I haven't been posting, but I have been reading a lot. One of the best things I've read over the past few weeks is Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote; or, the Adventures of Arabella. I was surprised by how much fun I had reading this book. I picked it up because I'd read that it was a favorite of Jane Austen's but I thought that the subject -- a parody of Don Quixote, written in 1752, about a young woman who reads too many romances -- might be somewhat dry. Fortunately, I was wrong: The Female Quixote is hilarious and charming.

It's about Arabella, who grows up on her country estate away from regular society, and becomes obsessed with the 17th-century French romances that she reads. She takes these books as an accurate portrayal of the world, and she lives her life as if she were a heroine in a romance. I didn't know much about this kind of romance before reading The Female Quixote, but I learned that they were hugely popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were massive tomes -- Artamene, or Cyrus the Great, by Madeleine and Georges de Scudery, took up ten volumes and might be the longest book ever written. All of the romances were set in a highly fictionalized ancient world, in places like Greece, Egypt, and Persia, and they all involve noble ladies whose beauty and wit drive men to perform epic acts of heroism to win them. When the characters in these romances aren't being captured by bandits or enchanted by sorceresses, they are delivering long, flowery speeches. In spite of all of this, I really want to read Artamene now. But I don't think I'm capable of making it through the original French version, even though the whole thing is available online.

So Arabella lives in one of these fantastic romance worlds. In her mind. In real life, she is the only daughter of a Marquis, living alone with her father in an amazing house with gardens and a vast library. For me, that world is romantic enough. In fact, one of the things I loved about The Female Quixote was how much it reminded me of a Georgette Heyer romance. Arabella has some things in common with Eustacie in The Talisman Ring, the young woman who dreams of marrying a bandit, or possibly being sentenced to the guillotine. Both books also have a character called the Beau -- the one in The Female Quixote is a vapid fashion-plate with the wonderful name of Mr. Tinsel.

(The real Beau, George "Beau" Brummel, by Richard Dighton, 1805.)

I loved Arabella from the moment I heard that "from her earliest Youth she had discovered a Fondness for Reading." Arabella is also beautiful, well-dressed, and possesses "an Air of Dignity and Grace." But what really draws everyone to her is her intelligence. Yes, she is delusional, but she's so eloquent and witty that people tend to believe her delusions. She even attracts two suitors who want to marry her, and most of the plot of the book revolves around her relationship to them. How can Arabella choose between the man who truly loves her and the man who wants her money? It's especially hard because she won't even let anyone declare his love to her:

"However specious your Arguments may appear, interrupted Arabella, I am persuaded it is an unpardonable crime to tell a Lady you love her ... I am certain, that Statira, Parisatis, Clelia, Mandana, and all the illustrious Heroines of Antiquity, whom it is a Glory to resemble, would never admit of such Discourses.

Ah for Heaven's sake, Cousin, interrupted Glanville, endeavouring to stifle a Laugh, do not suffer yourself to be governed by such antiquated Maxims! The World is quite different to what it was in those Days ...

I am sure, replied Arabella, the World is not more virtuous now than it was in their Days, and there is good Reason to believe it is not much wiser ..."

The Female Quixote deals with the virtues of both worlds -- the world of the romances and the contemporary world of the 18th century -- and it makes fun of them both. And even though I live more than 250 years later than Arabella, and I've never read a 17th-century romance, I found the whole book really funny. There are wonderful scenes which bring the two worlds into collision, such as the scene where Arabella goes to Bath, and we get to see what an ancient heroine would do when confronted with the fashionable set of 1752. I bet Jane Austen loved that scene too.

The Female Quixote isn't as perfect as a Jane Austen novel, but it's easy to see why it was one of her favorite books. I think that anyone who loves Jane Austen will probably love this book too.


  1. I've had this on my wish-list of books, because of the Jane Austen connection. But you've convinced me I need to look for a copy asap. It sounds wonderful. The Talisman Ring is one of my favorite Heyers, by the way!

  2. Totally new to me - that's (one of the reasons!) why I love your blog. Off to hunt it down. I too am a big Talisman Ring fan. (PS I'm too chicken to swim with those terrifying-looking creature - wow!)

  3. Thanks, Lisa May and Vicki! I hope you both find copies of this one, because it was really wonderful. I just read The Talisman Ring recently, and it went right to the top of my list of favorite Heyers.

  4. What you're saying is completely true. I know that everybody must say the same thing, but I just think that you put it in a way that everyone can understand. I'm sure you'll reach so many people with what you've got to say.