It’s not until late in the book that one realises the significance of the sub-title to this amusing piece of 18th century literature. Readers of the period would have been alert to the word ‘adventure’ in The Female Quixote, or The Adventures of Arabella because, as the Countess gravely explains to Arabella in Book 8, ideas change, and what was proper in a bygone age, may be scandalous in the present. (And vice versa, in the 21st century). For poor foolish Arabella, whose head has been turned by the imprudent reading of French romances, the idea of adventure is captivating, and she longs to be rescued from imminent peril by any number of heroic gentlemen. Alas, for Arabella, the greatest peril she faces is the loss of her reputation because the adventures that she orchestrates can only bring scandal…
Custom, said the Countess smiling, changes the very Nature of Things, and what was honourable a thousand Years ago, may probably be look’d upon as infamous now — A Lady in the heroic Age you speak of, would not be thought to possess any great Share of Merit, if she had not been many times carried away by one or other of her insolent Lovers: Whereas a Beauty in this could not pass thro’ the Hands of several different Ravishers, without bringing an Imputation on her Chastity. (Bk 8).
The book is, of course, a spoof, a reworking of Cervantes’ famous Don Quixote, which pokes fun at the chivalric tradition through Quixote’s obsession with Rescuing Fair Maidens and Performing Other Heroic Deeds. Lennox’s heroine, being only a girl, cannot ride off on any Rocinante to tilt at windmills – the adventures must come to her, and so indeed they do. Hapless servants and passers-by are interpreted as Noble Suitors in Disguise, scandalously using the role of underlings to get close enough to pay their addresses. These must be banished from her sight, because no True Man Who Loves Her could possibly do so without Pining in Desolation in a cave, Slaughtering Rivals with the Sword, Dying by Their Own Forlorn Hand or Wasting Away until She Whom They Love with Unreserved Passion Commands Otherwise. Then there are Others of more Nefarious Intent who lurk in her gardens purporting to be haymakers and from these would-be Ravishers, she must be rescued. After she has Swooned, of course…
Arabella is exceptionally beautiful, of course, and she is heir to a Great Fortune, of course, and although she is completely barmy and the subject of much gossip, there are, of course, rivals for her affections. Sir George is The Charming Villain, who is After Her Money, while Charles Glanville Loves her Truly. Her Sancho is the hapless Lucy, a serving girl of remarkable stupidity but indefatigable loyalty to her mistress. When, for example, Arabella launches into one of her long and boring expositions of Heroic Tales, citing Cleopatra as a role model for flouting society’s rules, Lucy understands not a word of it. Indeed she has trouble repeating words of more than two syllables… Her most useful skill is in standing in terrified bemusement until she receives an instruction she understands, which often gives the other characters time to rush off somewhere to intervene in the mayhem.
Glanville’s sister, who is not as pretty, not as rich, and certainly not as keen on any kind of reading or quoting of heroics, is jealous of Arabella, not least because she fancies Sir George for herself. (From Lennox’s portrayal of women in general, The Sisterhood is nowhere in evidence). Miss Glanville’s marriage ambitions make it strategic for her to play at being Arabella’s friend while distancing herself from the ridicule that inevitably comes Arabella’s way. Lennox has a lot of fun satirising Miss Glanville but in some ways she is the most complete of the characters, torn between needing Arabella’s social position to better her own, embarrassed by her antics, and furious at the heartless way Bella treats her brother. Not understanding that Arabella believes when Charles falls ill that he is sick for love of her and will therefore recover at her command, Miss Glanville is devastated that Bella will not visit him until she feels like it. When we remember how easy it was to die from fever in those days, a sister’s anguish seems very real.
Any lover of this Fair Maiden must Undergo Ordeals, and Glanville has to put up with many of them, though they are not the ones of Arabella’s fancies. At first he can’t quite believe that Arabella believes the nonsense she spouts, and then he treats it as a joke and plays along with it. But it’s not funny when Sir George, who has also read French romances and knows the lingo and the plot lines, turns out to be better at playing along with it and Arabella is impressed by his courting. Multiple embarrassments pile up and Glanville is anguished by the ridicule she brings upon herself, even from his own father. Things reach a climax when in London she hurls herself into the Thames to save herself from Ruin while at the same time he has got into a sword fight with a Rival and contrary to Bella’s belief that Heroes are Above the Law, he is in a bit of trouble.
Scholars of the Novel, and of Feminist Literature, study this artful frolic in depth, but I read it for fun.
Author: Charlotte Lennox (1730-1804)
Title: The Female Quixote, or The Adventures of Arabella
Publisher: Girlebooks, on Kindle. Download it here. First published 1752.