Category Archives: Eighteenth Century

The Enlightenment Run Amok: On Fiction and Truth

Arabella, the heroine of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, shares similarities, not surprisingly, with Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. She views the world through romantic French novels and fully expects adventures around every corner. Why no villains have yet attempted to kidnap her, nor any heroes fought duels to win her heart is one of her life’s big mysteries. Ultimately, she’s set straight on this; heroes are mythical. Villains, of course, aren’t, but in an enlightened society, maybe, just maybe villains will go the way of their heroic counterparts.

After her disillusionment in romance occurs, she asks this question of her scientifically minded doctor:

“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 rational doctor admits that the fiction which has formed Arabella’s thoughts can’t be defended–this fiction being of the untrue rather than the true variety. He, therefore, attempts to reform her mind by gently asking her leading questions, such as this one: “How is any oral, or written Testimony, confuted or confirmed?”

Her response is about as reasonable as you’d expect from a girl intelligent enough to read French romances: “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.”

From this answer, I understand that Arabella has a sound mind, along with enough intellect to make a proper study of the facts outside French romance, rather than inside, because those aren’t facts [which we’ve already established!]. By extension, I also know Arabella will eventually concede the truth. Her romance novels don’t parallel the England of her day and age. She was a fool to believe they did–a wise fool, but a fool nonetheless.

While the setting straight, or healing, of Arabella’s mind might be of some relief to other readers, as well as to Arabella’s honorable suitor, Mr. Glanville, I can’t help feeling let down, as though I, as well as the heroine, has lost something beautiful when she realizes that chivalry, adventure, and the divine art of love are fantasies. Although I’m always disappointed in the end of The Female Quixote, I refuse to conclude that Lennox merely meant to instruct society on the type of novels young women ought to read, favoring Richardson over Madeleine de Scudery.

No, the following exchange doesn’t support this interpretation:

The doctor claims 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 Arabella ownership of them–have created their own worlds. They exist as false worlds within false words, and create false notions within minds–especially the minds of young girls.

Arabella gives a frank reply to the doctor: “I am afraid, Sir, that the Difference is not in Favour of the present World.”

I have to agree with Arabella. Two hundred and sixty years have passed since Lennox first published her novel, and our hyper-rational, post-enlightenment society has not yet eradicated villains, even if the heroes have fled from our collective unconscious.

Oh, heroes, where have you gone? I can hear your horses’ hooves pounding through history, only to come to a clattering halt outside the palace of my modern mind.


Dr. Johnson’s Ghost

I could swear I spotted Samuel Johnson the other day, while still in Colorado. He was a large man, so large in fact, that he couldn’t help but appear to be bumbling about. I don’t mean that he was a man simply beset with a paunch after too many midnight sausage and beer forays with the other literary giants; what I mean is that everything about the man was large, including his lips, his nose, his head, his neck, his thick fingers, and the clothes that ill-fitted his big-boned frame.

For a moment—and only a moment—I envisioned the man in buckled shoes, short pants, a jacket buttoned tightly over the shirt that rose up to his chin with a tie at the collar, as if he were attempting to contain with one knot the thick neck beneath. I almost watched the filthy wig slip to the side as the man bent his head and hid his face behind a newspaper. However, the image slipped instead of the wig. The ghost of Samuel Johnson disappeared, leaving a man in jeans and a striped button-down shirt who didn’t really appreciate me staring at him.

I’m beginning to think that the ghost of Samuel Johnson haunts me, and I wonder what the Doc means to tell me. It seems I can’t go anywhere without his name, his visage, his words rearing up before me. Perhaps, I’ve simply created a world in which the great doctor can exist. After all, it makes sense I would encounter him in the introduction to The Female Quixote. As might be expected, Samuel Johnson gave patronage to Charlotte Lennox. According to Sir John Hawkins, Johnson had the audacity to throw her an all-night party at a tavern*:

“Johnson had directed that a magnificent hot apple-pye should make a part of it, and this he would have stuck with bay-leaves, because, forsooth, Mrs. Lenox was an authoress, and had written verses; and further, he had prepared for her a crown of laurel. . .”

On several occasions, I’ve had conversations with the grey-bearded man who makes the coffee at the local Anglican Church, in which Johnson plays a starring role. For certain definitions of religious and political words, he searches through the enormous volumes—the tomes as large as the doctor, himself—of Johnson’s dictionary. Sometimes, I admit, I linger in the kitchen area of the church just in case I might hear the name Samuel Johnson dropped in the midst of fruit washing and cheese slicing.

It was during my first writer’s getaway weekend that, after writing all day, drinking plenty of wine, and soaking in the mineral springs, I discovered the pocket volume of Samuel Johnson’s Insults. Now I carry it around with me, just in case. Is it any coincidence, really, that Johnson invaded my writing weekend?

My list of running against Johnson’s stout form doesn’t end there, but this passage of writing is growing, so I must stop and beg the muse to explain his presence to me—not the muse’s presence, of course. And I would also like to request that Dr. Johnson throw me an all-night party, in which he doesn’t crown me with a laurel, but in which he passes his greatness to me—in which he, in fact, says something to the nature of, “Well, I know you don’t live in London, but neither do I any longer. So, my friend, until we meet in heaven, you must carry on the tradition by writing a dictionary, or at least some decent poetry.”

*Sir John Hawkins quote taken from Margaret Anne Doody’s intro to the Oxford edition of The Female Quixote