This piece was originally written for a French publication, but although the novel it concerns was twice translated into French in the 18th century, it is unknown in France today. Trevor Merrill kindly translated my text into English, and having tweaked it a bit, I offer it here as a change of pace from GA-DH material—and a plug for my choice as the most delightful novel ever.

Charlotte Lennox’s novels are all of respectable quality, but even Euphemia, composed toward the end of her life from memories of her youth spent in America, is far from equaling her second effort, The Female Quixote; or The Adventures of Arabella (1752) composed when Lennox, whose year of birth is shrouded in mystery, was in her mid-twenties. (Lennox’s younger contemporary Fanny Burney also did her best work before the age of thirty.) That The Female Quixote was reprinted by Oxford’s World Classics in 1989 and by Penguin in 2007 owes less to its unique qualities than to a focus on gender that makes little distinction between first- and third-rate “women’s fiction.”

In the introduction to the Oxford Edition, Margaret Doody sets forth the thesis that the French pastoral and historical romances of the 17th century, notably the interminable novels of Mademoiselle de Scudéry, translations of which were popular in England with both sexes, were particularly attractive to women because they empowered them as equals to men. This equality held not only in the realm of authorship, but within a chivalrous universe where women’s authority, derived from the tradition of courtly love, was effectively superior to that of men.

In contrast, the new realism that appears in the mid-eighteenth century English novel with Richardson and emerges in the woman’s novel with Eliza Haywood’s The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751), submits women to the authority of the patriarchy. For Doody the female novelist and reader of Lennox’s era had thus to choose between an outdated fantastic paradise and a modern realistic Hell. But this jaundiced view forgets that the female Bildungsroman that Haywood inaugurated lives on in the eternally popular novels of Jane Austen, who has no difficulty convincing her reader that, despite women’s formally inferior status, married couples can indeed experience genuine mutual happiness—as, at the end of The Female Quixote, do Arabella and her faithful Glanville.

The Female Quixote will disconcert the reader who expects a gender-bended version of Cervantes’ classic. What Lennox found in the quixotic formula was the secret of creating a uniquely delightful heroine whose folly paradoxically serves to guarantee the extraordinary attractiveness that author and characters unanimously attribute to her, including even her jealous cousin (and Glanville’s sister) Charlotte—who shares the author’s first name.

The charm of Lennox’s novel is in the first place verbal. In the works of Scudéry and others that nourish Arabella’s imagination, a magic spell is cast by the exotic sonorities of the names of legendary warriors and princesses: Oroondates, Philidaspes, Mandana, Cleomedon, Artemisa, Artamenes, Melisintha… an effect amusingly increased by the era’s typographical conventions, which the modern editions have wisely chosen to maintain, according to which all Nouns are capitalized and all proper nouns are in Italics.  

Whereas Quixote’s illusions tend to center on objects that demand heroic action: armies to defeat, giants to slay, damsels to protect…, Arabella’s are almost entirely passive, the fantasies of an orphan heiress of eighteen who dreams of giving herself, after long trials, to the equivalent of an Alexander or an Artaban. It is only in the ninth and final Part of the novel that, taking as her model Clelia, who jumped into the Tiber “to preserve herself from Violation by the impious Sextus,” Arabella leaps into the Thames and tries to swim across it, an act which, by putting her life in danger, leads to the denouement in which she is obliged to renounce her “madness.” Up to that point, Arabella had suffered only psychologically from her illusions, which had led her to ascribe to the men around her incongruously heroic roles and obligations dictated by the chivalric laws that govern her novels. Whereas Quixote’s effect on those around him is to create an ambiguity between the everyday world and the world of chivalry, encouraging Sancho and others to take part in his game partly in mimetic sympathy and partly in mockery (as the Duke and Duchess do, sometimes with cruel humor, in the second part), Arabella’s illusions remain wholly her own, although several of the men she attracts attempt to humor her extravagant demands.

If Quixote’s fantasies at once attract and repel us, Arabella’s story encourages us to focus our fantasies on her. Unlike Sir George, who is attracted as much by her fortune as by her person, and who pretends to share her “madness” the better to seduce her, her cousin and fiancé Glanville plays along with her simply because he adores her. His unshakable devotion despite all he endures for her sake seems to provide us with ever-new proofs of her worthiness. This paradox is accentuated in Sir George’s shrewd reply (V, 4) to Glanville’s accusation that he is cultivating Arabella’s whims to make sport of her: “You do Lady Bella a much greater Injury than I do . . . by supposing she can ever be an Object of Ridicule and Contempt.” George, because he loves Arabella less purely than Glanville, sees her with enough objectivity to understand that she really needs no defense, for “the Singularity of her Manners is far less disagreeable than the lighter Follies of most of her Sex.” George, in sum, finds Arabella’s eccentricities as charming as we do.

Not for nothing does Lennox constantly insist on her heroine’s physical and moral perfections, on the beauty of her face, body, and voice, on the grace that marks her every movement and gesture, on the finesse of her intelligence and wit, on the tenderness of her heart despite her obligatory “cruelty” toward her suitors—a tenderness that Glanville witnesses at the outset in her caring treatment of her father when he falls off his horse in I, 10 and during his last illness, in II, 1. Nor are Arabella’s extravagant demands dictated by personal pride or vanity. She would oblige her admirers to live in a world where all women deserve the same deference as herself, but where she alone realizes this—and seems to us worthy of it.

Cervantes created the modern novel by demonstrating that in order to generate narrative interest in our disenchanted world, the novelist must apply to it the heroic formulae of medieval romance. Since these formulae belong to a world that cannot be inhabited by the novel’s protagonist, his actions are determined by what René Girard calls in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel  “external mediation”—for the Don, that of Amadis of Gaul—which surrounds these actions with a sacred aura. Even those who do not share the hero’s madness are tempted by the possibility of inhabiting this mediation-enchanted universe without having to pay the price. But Arabella’s mimetic behavior exercises on the reader a much more direct seduction. Whereas it is the Don’s second-hand illusions alone that influence us to see sheep as soldiers and a peasant girl as a princess, Arabella’s hyperbolic exigencies are guaranteed by the beauty (and wealth) that make her the most objectively desirable person in the novel.

The power of the narrative premise of a Quixote embodied in a beautiful woman is such that Lennox can virtually do nothing to jeopardize her authority over us, even in the most dubious episodes—the one, for example, in which Arabella strangely imagines that Sir Charles, her fiancé Glanville’s father and her uncle (by marriage), is himself in love with her. This “psychoanalytic” turn is unsettling; Arabella seems to have become like Molière’s Bélise, seeing lovers everywhere. But that, albeit without amorous intent, Sir Charles is touched by Arabella’s beauty is never in doubt. In their very first encounter, Charles contemplates Arabella “with as much Admiration as his Son, though with less Passion” (II, 3), and he later calls her “the finest Woman I ever saw in my Life” (VIII, 1). Nor are the other characters to whom Arabella ascribes fanciful qualities—the best example being Edward, the gardener’s assistant, who gets himself beaten and then banished for having stolen carp from the chateau’s pond, and whom she persists in taking for a “man of quality” who has disguised himself as a servant with the intent of carrying her off—in any way transfigured by her fantasies. Arabella’s madness, rather than adding to the attractiveness of those she submits to the laws of her Scuderian world, only enhances her own.

That, unlike Quixote’s illusions, Arabella’s are never contagious within the world of the novel only makes the contagion in the reader’s mind all the stronger. In the novel’s last book, Sir George comes up with a grand stratagem to steal Arabella away from Glanville. Having hired an actress to play the role of Cynecia, Princess of Gaul, he arranges to put her in Arabella’s path, then has her complain of the infidelity of her lover Ariamenes, who has shamefully deserted her. Next, observing Glanville in the vicinity, the “princess” pretends that he is Ariamenes, a lie Arabella would find it unpardonably discourteous to disbelieve. Although we know that this must be a ruse hatched by Sir George, and that such extreme measures must eventually lead to a fatal confrontation of Arabella’s illusions with reality, we enjoy for the moment the fantasy that the false princess is a real one—that Arabella has finally by some miracle been allowed to inhabit the fairytale world where she feels so much at home.

The novel’s most delicious moment is Book VI, almost entirely devoted to the autobiographical narrative of Sir George, who declares himself the scion of a previously unknown line of “kings of Kent.” George, who hopes to win Arabella’s heart by pretending to truly participate in her imaginary world, claims to have courted, after a pretty milkmaid, two illustrious princesses, the first of whom, Sydimiris, he meets only after having waged a nearly victorious solo battle against five hundred (!) soldiers of her brother, Prince Marcomire. Sir George tells his story to a public that includes Glanville, Sir Charles, and Charlotte as well as Arabella, and the savor of the ironic reflections that Charles directs at the storyteller comes from the fact that, apart from our heroine, nobody is expected to believe a single word. Arabella’s credulity adds an air of enchantment to what is after all a wholly plausible conversation among wealthy and cultivated people in which one of them amuses himself by pastiching the gallant novels of the previous century, with which Sir George shows himself to be enviably familiar.

Our fascination for Arabella is nourished by the paradox that makes us appreciate Sir George’s effort to think up a story that will please her even as we come to understand that no narrative of this kind could have a chance of touching her. For George cannot address even the most chaste and discreet words of love to Arabella without violating the absolute fidelity he owes to the princesses whose love he claims to have won. Accordingly, George’s tale elicits from her not admiration but increasingly critical reproaches culminating in a severe condemnation. When he attempts to exculpate himself by asserting that he only gave up searching for Philonice after years of unsparing effort, Arabella scornfully condemns him for the lack of delicacy that has allowed him to remain living after such a blow.

What Sir George’s narrative teaches us is that Arabella is impermeable to seduction. Her “external mediators,” the princesses of Mlle de Scudéry, protect her from all temptation by “bad desire.” And given her own desirability, Arabella’s quixotic system is clearly of practical value. It both obliges a true lover to prove his affection by persevering with very little encouragement, and protects her against temptation by a liaison or a hasty marriage. We might even interpret—as does Professor Doody after a fashion—Arabella’s mistaken suspicions of masculine desire, such as those with regard to Sir Charles or Edward, as symptoms of a submerged libido that might otherwise risk endangering her virtue. Conversely, when she realizes that she feels, in spite of herself, a growing tenderness for Glanville, we are certain that it is an authentic affection that responds to the real love of her good cousin.

But the value of Arabella’s “madness” is not merely negative. By freeing her from the “internal mediation” of the world that surrounds her, it liberates in her an originality that in a later age might have made her a queen of industry. Rather than following the fashion of the day, Arabella adapts her modes of dress from what she imagines to be the styles of the eras in which her novels take place. As early as the second chapter, the author points out the “Singularity” of her dress in which “all the Beauties of her Neck and Shape were set off to the greatest Advantage.” (Here and elsewhere, Lennox makes it clear that Arabella is not merely beautiful but sexy.) Later, when in VII, 7, a dressmaker acknowledges that she is incapable of imagining the appearance of the dress worn by Julia, Emperor Augustus’ daughter, Arabella has the dress made to order by her servants according to her own specifications.

Rather than lament with Professor Doody Arabella’s loss of “agency” when at the novel’s conclusion she renounces her illusions and accepts Glanville’s hand in marriage, we have no reason to believe that she has resigned either her independence of mind or her creativity. One could even go so far as to imagine, in accord with the Girardian notion of novelistic “conversion,” that in abandoning her illusions even as she understands how they contributed to her unique personal distinction, Arabella would qualify at the end of the novel to become a novelist herself—no doubt by writing works closer to those of Cervantes than of Mademoiselle de Scudéry.

And despite the inevitably artificial nature of the heroine’s “cure” in the novel’s penultimate chapter under the influence of a doctor of the church, whose lessons closely resemble the ideas of the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson, we have no reason not to believe fully in the authenticity of the love shared by the couple that she forms with her long-suffering cousin. Sir George, the deceiver deceived, courted Charlotte Glanville, who had concealed herself beneath Arabella’s veil… but let us leave to Charlotte Lennox the honor of concluding her novel:

Sir George, entangled in his own Artifices, saw himself under a Necessity of confirming the Promises he had made to Miss Glanville during his Fit of Penitence, and was accordingly married to that young Lady, at the same time that Mr. Glanville and Arabella were united.

We choose, reader, to express this Circumstance, though the same, in different Words, as well to avoid Repetition, as to intimate that the first mentioned Pair were indeed only married in the common Acceptation of the Word, that is, they were privileged to join Fortunes, Equipages, Titles, and Expense; while Mr. Glanville and Arabella were united, as well in these, as in every Virtue and laudable Affection of the Mind.

This uniquely delightful tale, full of the verve of youth, places Charlotte Lennox among the true masters—or mistresses—of her art. More than any other novel I know, The Female Quixote makes me wish that its heroine could descend like Galatea from its pages to grace our gray reality.