Arabella, the heroine of Charlotte Lennox’s eighteenth-century novel The Female Quixote, shares similarities, not surprisingly, with Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. She views the world through romantic French novels and expects adventures around every corner. Why no villains have yet attempted to kidnap her, nor any heroes fought duels to win her heart is a mystery to her. In short, she believes that French novels are historical texts.
After her rational doctor has attempted to set her straight, she asks this question:
“The Fables of Aesop, said Arabella, are among those of which the Absurdity discovers itself, and the Truth is comprised in the Application; but what can be said of those Tales which are told with the solemn Air of historical Truth, and if false convey no Instruction?”
The doctor is forced to admit that the novels which have formed her thoughts cannot be defended. He continues in his sad attempt at reforming her mind by gently asking her leading questions, such as this one: “How is any oral, or written Testimony, confuted or confirmed?”
In response, she most reasonably states, “By comparing it . . . with the Testimony of others, or with the natural Effects and standing Evidence of the Facts related, and sometimes by comparing it with itself.” By her answer, I understand that Arabella is a young woman of sound mind with enough intellect to make a proper study of the facts. By extension, I also understand that Arabella will eventually conclude that her French romances do not parallel the England of her day and age—that she was a fool, even, to believe that they did.
While the disillusioning, or healing, of Arabella’s mind might be of some relief to other readers, as well as to her fellow book characters, I can’t help feeling wistful, as though I, as well as the heroine, have lost something beautiful when she realizes that chivalry, adventure, and the divine art of love are fantasies. Although I’m always a little disappointed in the end of The Female Quixote, I refuse to conclude that Charlotte Lennox merely meant to instruct society on the type of novels that young women ought to be reading, favoring Richardson over Madeleine de Scudery.
The theme might be a little deeper than that–one of comparison, perhaps.
The doctor allows himself the liberty of claiming that “[Arabella’s] Writers have instituted a World of their own, and that nothing is more different from a human being, than Heroes or Heroines.” Her writers—and yes, he gives her ownership of the foolish authors—have created their own worlds. Aha! Worlds can be created in literature. Worlds within worlds do exist, as well as worlds within minds, and worlds within words. What the doctor rejects with his reason and right thinking, I accept for the hope of discovering a world outside my own, and for the desire to uncover beauty.
Arabella gives a frank reply to the doctor: “I am afraid, Sir, that the Difference [between her novels and reality] is not in Favour of the present World.”
I agree with Arabella.