- Scratching the Surface:Reading Character in Female Quixotism
The plot of the 1801 novel Female Quixotism centers on a series of love conquests that repeatedly end unsuccessfully and violently. At the heart of each episode is Dorcasina Sheldon who, even though overindulged by her father, her only living parent, is unquestionably the novel's heroine. She is a caring daughter, beloved mistress, and devoted friend; in spite of her many virtues, however, she is sufficiently misguided to model her real life after the romance novels she adores reading. She longs to find true love and in her attempts to do so is repeatedly wooed, abused, and deceived by those who court her, both those whose advances she welcomes and those who come uninvited. These events are best summarized as follows: Lysander, O'Connor, Philander, Puff the Barber, Mr. Cumberland, Captain Barry, his servant James, her servant John Brown, Captain Montague, and Mr. Seymore all woo Dorcasina. During the course of these courtships, she is chased by boys and dogs, stripped of most of her clothes, tied up, abducted, thrown off a horse, is bitten, tumbles down stairs, and faints. O'Connor and Seymore try to fool the heroine by faking honorable identities; Philander pretends to be a wooer but is really a jokester; James pretends to be Captain Barry; Captain Barry pretends to be asleep; Captain Montague is really her good friend Harriot Stanley dressed in disguise; Dorcasina believes that the bumbling John Brown is a gentleman masquerading as a servant; she mistakes Scipio, her faithful African servant, for her lover. In sum, Dorcasina is courted, hurt, and tricked by almost everyone who crosses her path, both friends who wish to protect her and villains who wish to take advantage of her. Friends and villains are not the only source of mistaken identity in Female Quixotism; Dorcasina is, to the chagrin of her friends and family, her own worst enemy. She repeatedly convinces herself that she possesses a special ability to recognize the true identity of a wooer that otherwise would remain hidden and so invites even more inappropriate liaisons than might otherwise have occurred.
Dorcasina's romantic episodes climax with a physical violence that jerks the story forward in fits and starts. She and many of her lovers [End Page 119] are subjected to violence that is mocking and explicit, making them the objects more of derision than pity. Sexual activities do not take place implicitly through textual innuendo; rather, Tabitha Tenney describes them in outrageous, dressed-up detail, using them to fuel her satiric objective.1 This goal, however, which is apparent through the novel's last episode, transforms each moment into upset, disillusionment, and even tragedy. Sevda Çaliskan describes this humor as a "parody of a parody"; Female Quixotism "mocks those who mock romance when its hero is a woman."2 Çaliskan's claims concerning the meta-humor of the novel may be justified, but she stops short of recognizing its sobering effect on the heroine and ultimately on the novel's readers.3 Humor propels the novel forward with each trick and joke building to a violent mini-climax. As the heroine, Dorcasina serves to connect the series of disparate events: for each successful disguise she suffers further bodily punishment and the more able the disguiser, the more vulnerable she becomes.
Dorcasina's plight discloses what happens to the undiscerning reader. Her power as a reader—novels inspire her to understand her own world as a fiction—and its debilitating effect on her life have inspired a range of critical responses. As Stephen Carl Arch remarks in his article, "Falling into Fiction," critics largely agree that Female Quixotism is a "coded" novel, one that is really about something other than a fictional characters personal plight."4 Cathy Davidson, for example, writes that "Female Quixotism is a . . . how-not-to-read-a-novel novel. Tenney allegorizes the reading process and turns it upon itself; one must be a resisting reader, a critical reader, a reader able to read other readings on the fiction, able to read the context in which the text is read."5 Cynthia Miecznikowski, like Davidson, reads the novel more in terms...